The British consumer has rarely had it so bad. Inflation is stubbornly above target, household bills are soaring and unemployment has begun to creep up. In April, the ONS told us UK employees’ average hourly earnings had fallen by nearly 9% since 2009 in real terms. Many are struggling to make ends meet, with food banks and payday loan companies gaining in popularity.

In such a bleak context, the case for sustainability is harder than ever to make. The received wisdom is that consumers are more concerned about balancing budgets and are happy for greenery to take a back seat.

We see this reflected politically too. Back in 2011, George Osborne made it clear he would attempt to mitigate the ‘ridiculous’ cost to British business of green regulation. And yet, when you look at the business community, there is a different story. Witness Tesco’s recent announcement that it would launch an initiative aimed at reducing the amount of food its customers throw away, part of a new ‘Tesco and Society’ sustainability platform. We’ve already had Marks & Spencer’s Plan A and Nestlé’s ‘Creating Shared Value’ sustainability plans, while Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ is increasingly central to its business.

“More businesses are realising the risks within their supply chains”

So, what is going on? Part of it is a recognition that the risks of not adopting a sustainable mindset are too big to ignore. The horsemeat scandal stung a lot of big-name supermarkets, while many high street retailers were implicated in the disaster at Rana Plaza in Dhaka. More businesses are coming to realise the risks that can spring from their supply chains.

Another key factor is that it simply makes good economic sense. Businesses must plan for the long term and they recognise that, to remain profitable, they must act now to cope with a resource squeeze that is only going to worsen. The global middle class is expected to grow to around five billion by 2030, and this will mean more pressure on energy, water and land. Efficient management of carbon footprint, waste and recycling will only increase in importance.

Added to this, consumer-facing businesses are recognising that putting sustainability at the heart of business strategy will be critical to their ambition to be admired and respected by consumers, employees, customers and suppliers alike over the long-term.

The challenge, then, is how businesses can bring consumers with them at a time of such disengagement. Any messaging related to sustainability has to be a natural fit with the brand, the situation and the individual, passing the “what matters to me” test. It will be the brands that continue to engage, excite and play to the aspirations of consumers against a backdrop of shifting social norms that will win with the general public.

Politicians and many consumers may increasingly be looking at the green agenda as one of those ‘nice-to-haves’ - a luxury we cannot now afford. The reality is far more urgent and businesses are leading the way. More of us should follow their example.

Lawrence Hutter is CEO of Alvarez & Marsal’s European Corporate Solutions business