Consumer expert Kate Hardcastle MBE is a familiar face on British TV sharing her knowledge, insights and tips on how to live well while also saving money.
Kate, who received her MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for services to business and entrepreneurship in the Queen’s Birthday Honours back in 2018, has now launched Buy Smarter, Buy Greener, a platform to help empower customers to make their own, informed and better choices for themselves and the planet.
We sat down with the married mother-of-three and co-founder of Insight With Passion, an international consultancy that helps businesses build better relationships with customers, to gain her valuable insights on how consumers really see sustainability.
The Ethicalist: After years of giving consumers the best advice via myriad outlets you have decided to launch your own green business, Buy Smarter Buy Greener. Did you find it harder to get off the ground than your previous projects?
Kate: It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done – and it will continue to be. I don’t imagine this being a project that I feel has achieved everything for years yet. The simple point is that, having seen the green initiatives of some of the best manufacturers in the world and the challenges faced, then filming documentaries with consumers about how they use [those] products, I saw a misalignment, and I couldn’t help but create Buy Smarter Buy Greener.
At the moment, it serves no commercial purpose. We just have ten experts, that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way, and I’ve said to them, “Look, can you please write techniques, tools, and tips, on all of these measures, so that anyone wanting to find the information can just find it.”
I was very fortunate to be mentored by [Body Shop Founder] Dame Anita Roddick, for a very short time, and she told me that if I ever did get a platform, to use that platform for good. I knew that a lot of people were coming to me for advice when it came to shopping because of the TV programmes that I do, and I thought, “the best thing I can do is signpost them here.”
If a consumer feels powerless they switch off, and the biggest message we have all got to put out there is you really need to switch on, because the tiniest baby steps can make all the difference. People feel completely at a loss as to what they can do but empowered, and together, collectively, we could make significant change.
Do you feel the tide is changing for consumers when it comes to sustainability?
KH: Many consumers just don’t know how to start being ethical and more engaged because they find it very difficult they tend to be smaller brand players. I was doing an event for an organisation last week, and before it began I said, “Look, ladies, I hope you’re ready for a quiet crowd. We’re going to persist, but just do be prepared that we might not have the numbers that we’d want. That doesn’t mean that you’re any less valued or valid, we just have to get this point across.”
And that will be one of the measures for the success of sustainability for me because I will walk out onto the stage at an event one day, and it’s going to be a full house where the audience doesn’t feel that they should be there, they want to be there. That’s the difference. That it’s not just a project team within the business anymore; it’s actually everyone’s responsibility all of the time. You can feel that tipping point is in the air and it’s going to come at some point.
What do you think needs to change to get more consumers on board with the idea of sustainability?
KH: If I’m a consumer in a UK supermarket, right now and I’m facing the cost of living crisis, I’m going to be very value oriented. I want the best value for the price but I actually would also like to do the right thing for the planet. But it’s difficult, there’s the pressure of time. You have to compare the products and try and work out the recycling labels – there isn’t even a consistent standard – so it would be quite possible for a consumer to look at one packaging, see a recycling logo, and think, “Yes, that’s it, I’m doing the right thing, I can recycle this,” but actually what that recycling logo means is that the organisation has just donated to a recycling charity. Not that the product can be recycled! Another label might say that certain parts have been recycled, but not all of it. The consumer is someone who works a 40 hour week, the rest of the time is a carer for an elderly relative, is trying to pay the bills, do cleaning and may quite like to have a hobby! How are they meant to go through a basket of 80 products, and work out what to recycle? It’s a minefield.
Large organisations need to create a common labelling language for the consumer to understand, but until we get that ease of use, I think we are going to find it continually difficult. People want to do the right thing – research shows that 80 per cent of consumers want to do the right thing. It’s just how? And can I afford it?
Often, shopping sustainably is regarded as a luxury and so is living sustainably. Do you think it is accessible to all consumers?
KH: Yes! I one hundred per cent believe living sustainably is accessible. Because I still think it’s an easy thing to do, relatively, it just needs to be done with education. It’s a baton carrier in a race, isn’t it? That’s what we are. We’re taking the charge, and we’re racing through, in that second or third leg. It’s not the big glory moment, it’s not… it’s something we’re going to get in our lifetime. It’s going to be that hard work, arduous work, but it’s not difficult work – it’s just consistent messaging, over and over again, “Come on, let’s make it easy. Come on, let’s get this done. Let’s focus on this.” Because if it was cost engineering, it would be done. If there was a way to try and understand how we could revalue a product, I can assure you it would be done, and things that you don’t even think are possible can be done very quickly because there’s a cost focus on it. We just need to put the focus on the environment to be as important as the cost. That’s a tipping point.
I think that it’s going to take as much effort from the consumer to put the pressure on businesses as it will be for them to find the answers. And that’s disappointing, because it shouldn’t have to be that way, but it will be that consumer conscience, which has already kicked in so significantly, that will be the saviour of the day.
If you had to give one bit of advice to consumers who want to get involved but haven’t yet, what would it be?
KH: Our grandparents, and their parents, naturally did a lot of this [being sustainable], with ease, and without any of the timesaving tools we have. And my grandmother taught me as a shopkeeper in business that cost is really important, and waste is what you want to prevent. Life was simpler then but the thing that focused her mind was, “How do I store that? How do I preserve that? How do I reuse that? How do I mend that? How do I fix that?” And I think, actually, as consumers, we just need to take that approach and if you look at reuse, repurpose, and some of the brilliant initiatives that are coming through, finally we’re getting round the corner. But I think we are still trying to do a three-point turn in a massive articulated lorry, and it’s going to take time.