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March of the disrupters
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The march of the disrupters

23 February, 2020

Most big businesses haven’t yet woken up to the scale of change needed to take on the twin challenges of climate change and inequality, and to appeal to a changing consumer base that prioritises ethics and sustainability. So perhaps it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a wave of new businesses – born into and out of our times – that are built in a more progressive way.

Disruptive brands are cropping up in every sector and many are growing stratospherically fast.

We’ve got Lemonade offering insurance services based on a flat fee to counter inequality rather than perpetuate it. Veja giving us shoes that are built around the promise of economic justice. All Plants creating meal kits to facilitate a healthier flexitarian lifestyle. Fenty giving us beauty born with a shade for everyone. Ninety Percent building a premium clothing brand which shares 90% of its profits. The list goes on…

In addition to the disrupters in existing categories, we’re also seeing a wave of entirely new category segments being created explicitly to tackle the challenges we face. Impossible Food and Beyond Meat – and all their imitators – have made a new space around plant-based protein. KeepCup and all the other reusables have led many to shun the disposable coffee cup. New financial services, personified by companies like WageStream, aim to reduce the poverty premium and eradicate pay day loans.

For all these companies, sustainability is the way in – it’s their point of difference and it’s what they put on their front door.

And it’s also the shortcut signal to the fact that the brand, product or service is better than whatever went before it. Sustainability short circuits to aspiration and desire – and to durability and efficiency and ease of use. We’ve gone full circle from the times when people assumed the eco option was less good in some way.

And this is in part because sustainability – writ large – has become a first order factor in people’s decision-making dynamics. For years we’ve been the voice of measured reason, explaining that if all else is equal (and in our commoditised world, it often is) consumers will choose the ‘better’ option.

No more is this so. It has become the reason to buy or not buy.

Our belief is that big businesses should wake up to the threat this new generation of brands poses, and take it head on. If we’re going to be able to tackle the issues of our time, we need the power, force and scale of big businesses. We need the organisations that have already gone through the teething pains of growing, and which are built on solid foundations, with an understanding of their impact across the board, and have an awareness of the complexity of supply chains and product life cycles. After all, it’s not as though these companies have been standing still, the vast majority have laid the groundwork of sustainability. They have put the right structures and systems in place. They just haven’t gone anywhere near far enough with them.

Now is the time for this to change. The new wave of disrupters provides confirmatory evidence of the change in consumer and cultural will. The race is on for the equivalent movement from the giants that are best placed to deliver transformation, at scale.

By Giles Gibbons

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