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Green gold: how sustainability became big business for consumer brands

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The floor wipes are biodegradable, the cake made with sustainable palm oil, the kitchen cleaner comes in a recycled bottle, the coffee is Rainforest Alliance certified and the toilet paper stamped “forests for all forever”.

The aisles of a local London convenience store tell the story of the green boom taking place in consumer goods. In a fiercely competitive industry, eco-friendly credentials have become key to attracting the attention of consumers worried about the future of the planet.

“This is a trend that will intensify as companies seek to meet evolving consumer expectations on sustainability . . . those that fail to keep up risk losing out,” said Aude Gandon, chief marketing officer at Nestlé, the world’s largest food company.

But the proliferation of this huge range of green and eco-friendly goods has also worried regulators and prompted questions about whether sustainability claims are always truthful or clear to consumers.

Sue Garrard, a former Unilever executive who now works as a sustainability consultant, said: “There are some companies that have been looking seriously at this and are genuinely on a journey to try to do the right thing.

“Then there are a very large number of brands that are scrabbling to try and leverage the opportunity . . . there is a lot of activity but when you poke at it some of it is very superficial and some of the product or packaging claims are actively misleading.”

Column chart of Share of products, 2015 to 2019 (%) showing Green marketed products contribute an outsize share of consumer goods growth

How green business became big business

From recycled plastic credit cards to insect-based pet food and biodegradable shoes, sustainable and eco-friendly products have swept across consumer markets in recent years.

In the four years to 2019, only 16 per cent of consumer goods products in the US were marketed for their sustainability, yet they accounted for more than half of the sector’s growth, according to research by the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

The world’s biggest online retailer, Amazon, joined the rush this year with the launch of its Climate Pledge Friendly product label in six countries.

In the UK, consumer spending on goods and services branded as ethical increased almost tenfold in two decades to reach record highs in 2018, far outstripping the general rise in household consumption, according to the Co-operative Group, a UK retailer.

Marc Engel, chief supply chain officer at Unilever, said the rise in sustainable goods was prompted both by consumers who “want brands that have a strong purpose” and by investors.

“Five or 10 years ago, the only question you would get [on sustainability] at an investor conference was: how much is all of this costing? Now we regularly get questions about what we are doing on deforestation, on biodiversity, on social inequality.”

After the Paris climate agreement was reached in 2015, many food and household goods companies set out new environmental goals. Next came a blizzard of PR to communicate these changes to consumers.

A survey conducted in October by the UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association found 69 per cent of respondents had been asked to publicise green, social or governance messages in the past year, including one request relating to low-emissions coffins.

That does not mean all the initiatives are public relations-driven. Decades of work by global companies have brought about genuine improvements in palm oil sourcing, said Ms Garrard. And substantive work is under way to eliminate the plastics that are toughest to recycle, such as PVC and polystyrene, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation said last month.

A new generation of products and consumers

Another factor, said Ms Garrard, is the closing of the “green gap” between consumer intentions and what they buy.

“We’ve had three or four decades of people who were in marketing believing that sustainability doesn’t sell,” she said. “Consumers were saying in research what they thought they ought to say . . . That never translated into actual behaviour.”

One problem was the products, she said. It was sometimes the case that “You had to pay more money for a product that didn’t work as well . . . that’s an insane consumer proposition.”

A McDonald’s ‘PLT’ burger with a Beyond Meat plant-based patty © Moe Doiron/Reuters

But a series of rapidly growing start-ups, such as Seventh Generation laundry products and Beyond Meat plant-based foods, changed that, combining green credentials with products that people actually wanted to buy.

At the same time, a generational shift has taken place. The NYU Stern research found that “the younger the household, the more likely they were to buy sustainability-marketed products”.

Multinationals battling with slow growth spotted the opportunity and switched their extensive R&D and marketing machines into gear.

Mr Engel said companies like his own had realised that “you have to think not just about money, but also about convenience and product quality. No one wants to buy a product that is good for the environment but doesn’t get the stains off my clothes.”

It’s not always easy buying green

As sustainable products have moved into the mainstream, labels and credentials have proliferated. The Canadian group Eco Label Index has counted more than 450 different kitemarks and certification schemes, and that is without including in-house schemes such as the Mondelez “Cocoa Life” programme.

Official kitemarks, such as the EU’s Ecolabel, and organisations such as ISEAL, a membership group for sustainability standards, bring a level of standardisation. But regulators think more needs to be done.

Compostable plastic free cups made from plant material filled with fruit juice

The European Commission has launched a consultation on requiring companies to back up statements about the carbon footprint of their products, while the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority this month began an investigation of products and services making “eco-friendly” assertions.

The CMA said it was “concerned that this surge in demand for green products and services could incentivise some businesses to make misleading, vague or false claims”.

Some popular terms, such as “biodegradable”, lack rigorous, widely accepted definitions, while others can be misleading in certain cases. One example is packaging that is labelled “recyclable” but requires specific local facilities that are not always available.

Ms Garrard also pointed to the growing number of products that claim to be made from recycled “ocean plastic”, even though no system exists to remove plastic waste from the sea at scale, and there are only limited operations to retrieve it from beaches.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, is sceptical about how much of a revolution there has been in sustainable products. “This is a golden age for greenwash,” he said. “Any company that wants to gain the public’s trust and be a genuine green leader needs to put in the hard work first and put up the billboards later.”

Who pays the price of sustainability

Genuine shifts towards sustainability often come at a cost, leaving manufacturers wrestling with the question of who pays.

The NYU Stern research found that most green-labelled goods had a price premium ranging from 3 to 165 per cent. But that has does not mean they are more profitable.

Bar chart of Sustainable premium/discount (%) showing Eco-marketed consumer goods typically trade at a premium to conventional products

François-Xavier Roger, chief financial officer of Nestlé, told a conference in September that the costs of packaging changes and carbon neutrality were “material”, and added: “Consumers are not going to pay for it.”

“Investors and shareholders are not going to pay for it either,” he said. “What we have to do is really to find efficiencies in our supply chain, efficiencies across the organisation in order to be able to finance it.”

Paula Quazi, co-founder of UK sustainable laundry start-up Smol, said the cardboard packaging it uses costs much more than plastic. “We’ve had to take that margin reduction ourselves . . . we don’t make the sort of margins that big [listed companies] do,” she said.

Mr Engel noted that not all “green” changes are bad for the bottom line: efforts to save energy in Unilever’s operations have generated savings, he said.

The question of cost will loom larger during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. But the NYU Stern study found that sustainably labelled goods had maintained their market share, at least until mid-June.

“There was lots of discussion as to whether people would cede their interest in sustainability given the pandemic,” said Randi Kronthal-Sacco, who led the research. “But that does not seem to be happening.”



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Analysis

DUP’s new leader strives to stabilise N Ireland’s biggest party

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, new leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, is striving to heal DUP wounds that pose a very potent threat to its status as the region’s most powerful political force.

The 58-year-old is expected to ease internal divisions by sharing the DUP’s prized ministerial positions in Northern Ireland’s government between his supporters and those of Edwin Poots, his predecessor as party leader, who was ousted last week after just 21 days in the job.

Donaldson, named DUP leader on Tuesday, is also aiming to unite the party around the cause of aggressively pressing the UK government to overhaul contentious post-Brexit trading rules between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

These arrangements were strongly criticised but ultimately tolerated by Poots and by Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s former first minister. Her removal as DUP leader in April heralded what has been the most tumultuous period in the party’s 50-year history. 

The urgency of forging consensus within the DUP stems from a big decision facing Donaldson: whether to endorse a first minister appointed by Poots against the party’s will, propose a replacement, or collapse Northern Ireland’s government in protest at post-Brexit trading rules.

A collapse would have far-reaching consequences beyond the DUP: the power-sharing government at Stormont established under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement drew a line under the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that claimed more than 3,600 lives.

Shuttering the Stormont assembly could destabilise the region in the early stages of the summer marching season, which often inflames tensions between Northern Ireland’s Catholic nationalist community and Protestant unionists.

“We need Stormont established for people to see that politics is working and it’s not always in a perpetual crisis,” said Peter Sheridan, chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, a peace-building organisation. “Wherever you have a political vacuum there is always the danger of violence.”

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, Donaldson, a senior DUP MP at Westminster, knows that at the very least he is counting down to Stormont assembly elections scheduled for May. He intends to stand in them, and then become first minister, he told the Financial Times.

But the elections will be a public test that the DUP is ill-equipped to face in its current state of disarray. One recent opinion poll put its support among voters as low as 16 per cent, compared to more than 35 per cent in the early days of Foster’s leadership.

“The DUP machine . . . is completely unfit for an election compared to how primed they usually are,” said Sophie Whiting, co-author of an award-winning book about the DUP. 

DUP founder Ian Paisley addresses a meeting in Belfast in 1972 © Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Established as a hardline breakaway from the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP was for decades synonymous with its founder, the late Rev Ian Paisley. He set up his own Free Presbyterian church and was famed for quotes like “save Ulster from sodomy” in his effort to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the late 1970s.

Diarmaid Ferriter, an Irish historian, said some of what has played out in the DUP since Paisley stepped down as leader in 2008 was typical of the “infighting after a very dominant authoritarian figure departs the stage”.

Neither of the DUP’s subsequent two leaders — Peter Robinson or Foster — had the charisma of Paisley, and internal party divisions became more pronounced.

But the fallout from the UK’s departure from the EU has also played a central role in the DUP ructions. The pro-Brexit party briefly enjoyed major influence at Westminster when it propped up Theresa May’s minority UK government, and the DUP rejected her withdrawal agreement with the EU.

But when Boris Johnson replaced May as UK prime minister, the DUP accused him of betrayal after he finalised a Brexit deal that created a customs and regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Treating their region differently to the rest of the UK was anathema to Northern Ireland’s unionists.

“It’s very hard for [the DUP] to explain what happened,” said Alex Kane, a longtime Northern Ireland commentator.

Unionist protesters demonstrate against the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement in Portadown © Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

The DUP has also been coming under threat from the winds of change in the region. Young people, and their parents and grandparents, have begun to embrace gay rights, abortion and other issues that clashed with the DUP’s deep conservatism.

Dissatisfaction with Foster inside the DUP included a perceived softening of her stance on social issues after she failed to vote against legislation banning gay conversion therapy.

But the biggest issue for Foster was the DUP’s handling of the Northern Ireland protocol — the part of Johnson’s Brexit deal that introduced the border in the Irish Sea.

Tim Cairns, a former DUP adviser, said the criticism of Foster “wasn’t that she was too soft on the protocol, it was that she was too soft in the action she was taking to get rid of the protocol”.

Poots succeeded Foster with promises to do better on the DUP’s most important issues, and to embrace a more inclusive leadership style.

He failed at both, notably by agreeing to continue the power-sharing government involving the DUP and the nationalist Sinn Féin party on terms overwhelmingly opposed by his colleagues at Stormont and Westminster.

Poots infuriated DUP politicians by striking an agreement under which Westminster will pass legislation to protect and promote the status of the Irish language — a top priority for Sinn Féin.

Abortion rights protest at Stormont © Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Donaldson on Monday launched his bid to lead the DUP with a warning that the government at Stormont could collapse if the UK did not take “decisive action” on the Northern Ireland protocol.

A UK government official said Donaldson was seen as a “more pragmatic” figure than Poots, adding that the new DUP leader’s experience at Westminster meant he had “relationships with people” that could ease negotiations on the protocol.

Still, securing changes to the protocol will be difficult, not least because any revisions must be agreed with the EU. The British official rejected the suggestion that the UK government would have to give the DUP a sweetener on the protocol to ensure Northern Ireland’s stability.

Kane said he believed Donaldson would do everything possible to avoid a collapse of the region’s government. “He isn’t giving up Westminster and coming back to Northern Ireland just to allow the assembly to come down,” added Kane. “He wants to be first minister.”

As for the future of the DUP, while the party has been scarred by recent events, Donaldson arguably inherits a better situation than his predecessor.

In particular, Poots resolved the contentious Irish language legislation, relieving Donaldson of an issue that was always going to be problematic for some inside the DUP.

Furthermore, Donaldson is privately more progressive on social issues than he is in public, and a strategic long-term thinker, according to people who know him.

Cairns said: “There are certainly problems within the party, [but] if anybody is going to sort that out I think Jeffrey is probably best placed to do that.”



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Conservatives’ ideological splits exposed by big spending rail projects

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Boris Johnson has been urged by Conservative MPs representing the ‘red wall’ of former Labour heartland seats not to cut back major rail infrastructure projects as the UK prime minister comes under pressure from chancellor Rishi Sunak to rein in ambitious plans for public spending.

The National Infrastructure Commission, which advises the government, recently said plans to extend the High Speed 2 rail project to Leeds should be scrapped to save £32bn from its expected budget of over £100bn. Earlier this week the FT revealed that costs on HS2 have risen by £1.7bn in the past year — partly because of the pandemic — although this was covered by the project’s contingency budget.

Meanwhile the Treasury has not yet given the sign-off to the Northern Powerhouse rail project, which is supposed to link the north’s big cities from Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle via Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, and which could cost a further £39bn.

The uncertainty over the multibillion pound transport schemes underline the tensions between Johnson and Sunak in recent weeks over a number of spending projects, with the Treasury eager to dampen Downing Street’s appetite for spending. Number 10 has clashed with other Whitehall ministries over social care reform and a new “royal yacht”.

Johnson is seen by his party as the most pro-spending Conservative leader since Harold Macmillan’s time in Downing Street from 1957 to 1963. Since Margaret Thatcher took over the party in 1975, it has shunned stimulating demand through spending, opting instead for tax cuts.

One senior Treasury insider said that Sunak’s view was “there are choices that have to be made” and it was important to stabilise the public finances as the UK emerged from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. The chancellor announced two tax changes in his March budget — freezes in the personal income tax threshold and a rise in corporation tax.

“What he did at the Budget was to put us back on to a more stable trajectory, get debt falling and get our public finances on to a stable footing. He made it very clear that the two tax changes are things he wanted to do to achieve that. But he’s not necessarily keen on raising any more taxes on people, particularly personal taxation,” the official said.

HS2 is designed to run from London to Manchester via Birmingham and Crewe. But the “eastern leg of HS2 2b” — extending from the West Midlands to Leeds — has been criticised by many Tory MPs in its traditional southern strongholds, who believe it should be scrapped.

Tories elected for the first time in the 2019 election have privately warned that it would be a mistake to cancel it. “Our first time voters are watching and waiting for the government to prove they’re delivering on the promises we made them in 2019,” one newly elected MP said.

Other Tories insist the Northern Powerhouse Rail, sometimes referred to as HS3, is even more important. “It’s absolutely crucial that ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ is built. I wasn’t a big fan of HS2 but this is exactly what we have to build to deliver on the trust that was put on us,” another MP said.

Following a report carried by the Huffington Post on Tuesday that said the Treasury and Downing Street were at odds over when to publish the long-awaited integrated rail plan (IRP), which will set out the details of Britain’s future rail system including the new Leeds-Manchester route, a Downing Street spokesman said the government was “still committed” to the new rail line.

“We are getting on top of our priorities and investing in northern transport,” he said. “The integrated rail plan will set out how major rail projects including HS2 phase 2b and Northern Powerhouse Rail will work together to deliver reliable rail services that passengers deserve.”

One Treasury figure said that Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department for Transport all broadly accepted the need to push ahead with the project — but the details were still up in the air.

“There needs to be a package of investment and needs to be agreement on what that looks like. Work is ongoing,” the person said. “But this is more an issue of bandwidth than any serious differences, it has been a while since the relevant cabinet ministers all met.”

Any disagreements on funding the new railway line are not about scale but are instead likely to be about the timeline and how soon spades can go in the ground. 

Many newly elected Tory MPs favour more spending, to make up for decades of under investment in their areas. One MP representing a northern constituency said that most of the newly elected Tories backed “sensible measures that allow us to deliver on our manifesto commitments”.

“Very few people are going around saying we have to do everything, colleagues know that we need to have clear blue water with Labour. We’re in a dangerous position if it looks like we’re going to outspend them,” they said.

Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website and a former Tory MP, said the current parliamentary party has a similar tension to the one at the top of government. “Their hearts are with Johnson but their heads are with Sunak,” he said.

“Most Tories are in parliament because they are Conservatives and that’s true of the red wall intake too. They believe in a smaller state and lower taxes. But these beliefs run up against their constituencies demanding more and more spending.”



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First unleveraged single-stock ETPs aim to woo retail investors

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Interested in ETFs?

Visit our ETF Hub for investor news and education, market updates and analysis and easy-to-use tools to help you select the right ETFs.

Leverage Shares is attempting to tap the boom in retail investing with the launch of the world’s first unleveraged physically backed single-stock exchange traded products. The ETPs provide investors in UK and elsewhere in Europe the rare opportunity to buy fractional shares.

Investors might be forgiven for thinking they are another version of the company’s leveraged or inverse ETPs that amplify gains and losses, reset every day and are generally viewed as unsuitable for retail investors.

However, the products promise no geared returns. Instead, they invest directly in the underlying company and, with their launch at $5 per share, their additional sterling and euro share classes, and their offer of big-name companies such as Tesla, they are being aimed straight at the European retail market.

Oktay Kavrak, product strategist at Leverage Shares, said it was unsurprising that the new products were not well understood at present. “Since we’ve only been making leveraged ETPs until now, I’d say this is expected,” he said.

But they have caught the attention of some industry participants.

Matt Brennan, head of passive portfolios at AJ Bell, one of the UK’s largest investment platforms, said that while no decision had yet been taken to add the products to the platform, AJ Bell was “actively monitoring them”.

“In general I am not usually a fan of ETPs, as they do add extra complexity, but to be fair to these products, they do seem to solve a few different problems,” Brennan said.

The products, which it started to roll out in May, effectively made it possible for UK and some other European investors to buy fractional shares in large overseas companies such as Tesla, Google and Amazon for about $5. That compares to about $600 for a single share in Tesla, $2,500 for Alphabet and nearly $3,500 for Amazon.

Leverage Shares’ latest launches last week added large Chinese companies such as Nio and JD.com to the family of unlevered single stock ETPs, which are listed on the London Stock Exchange, Euronext Amsterdam and Euronext Paris.

Kavrak said the ETPs were already available on the Interactive Brokers and Swissquote platforms and that Leverage Shares was in negotiation with other platforms including AJ Bell and Hargreaves Lansdown.

“I can understand the rationale for an unlevered approach to accessing single stocks that acts as a proxy fractional share — though clearly investors will need to pay an ongoing charge for the privilege — something they don’t need to do when owning the standard equity share,” said James McManus, chief investment officer at Nutmeg, a UK investment platform that offers low-cost investment portfolios.

“Clearly this is also an imperfect solution to an existing problem and points to the fact that many platforms have not solved the issue of fractional shares — unlike their US counterparts,” McManus added.

So-called fractional shares allow retail investors to own a part of a share, which can be useful if the share is expensive or if large share price movements result in the need for portfolio rebalancing. Nutmeg has developed a fractional share facility that it uses for its portfolio offerings.

Brennan pointed out that as well as enabling fractional shares the currency share classes eradicated the need for currency conversion charges, which could be high on some platforms.

Investing in the US companies via the Dublin-listed ETPs would also relieve investors of the need to fill in documentation to avoid penal tax rates, Brennan said, although he warned that potential investors should also remember that the European-listed ETPs often trade when the markets on which their underlying stocks are listed are closed.

He also pointed to the potential burden of costs that the ETPs would bring. These included the annual management fee of 0.15 per cent, but also the likelihood of wider bid-ask spreads than a more diversified ETF. He added that the ETPs might not track the underlying stock very efficiently if cash was not fully invested and dividends were not reinvested.

However, Todd Rosenbluth, head of ETF and mutual fund research at CFRA said the products looked interesting and were relatively inexpensive for what they offered.

“I think a 0.15 per cent fee for the stock trackers is modest, given the access these provide, and we would expect trading costs will likely improve as more investors discover them. Most new exchange traded products incur limited volume initially,” he said.

He said they should not be confused with Leverage Shares’ other offerings. “There are leveraged versions, but the ones we’re talking about are as risky as owning Tesla or Amazon outright.”

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