sustainability is good for business

Sustainability: consumers driving change (and profit)

What used to be an eco-hippy fringe market is now a billion dollar industry.

From what used to be an eco-hippy fringe market, the sustainability market is now a billion dollar industry that is infiltrating all aspects of consumer life – from organic ready meals to recycled counter tops, hybrid cars to ecotourism.

Due to the tireless work of environmental charities, awareness raising campaigns and (let’s face it) cold hard fact, corporate responsibility is something that consumers are demanding more and more.

Brands should not underestimate the buying power of responsible consumers and, more importantly, not wait for consumers to demand sustainability but start making it an integral part of their business model right now.

Simply responding to the zeitgeist by cutting corners and slapping a few certifications onto your brand and then spending money on expensive green marketing campaigns is not enough. Last year, Volkswagen paid enormous reputational and financial costs for making this error.

It could be argued that brands are part of the problem, with their seductive power that is fuelling our current unsustainable lifestyles, it’s also true that because of their huge economic and cultural sway brands can also be a part of the solution.

Building sustainability into a mainstream brand with established practises and supply chains is not an easy task – it’s easier to build a new house with solar panels and insulation than it is to convert an old house with cracks and drafts – but implementing sustainable practise into well known and well loved brands is imperative for their own future as well as the future of the planet.

Some argue that being sustainable isn’t something that brands should spend money on telling their consumers about, they should just be doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

There are brands that are doing this (or more accurately not doing this), for example did you know that Ikea are highly committed to a 100% sustainability plan by 2020? Despite this, they are more likely to be known for cheap ‘n’ cheerful furniture and excellent meatballs than their environmentally friendly business strategy.

Sustainable business practise as norm without the need to shout about it is without a doubt how it should be in an ideal world. But this is not an ideal world, and companies are doing their consumers a disservice if they don’t get the message out there.

The importance of storytelling

So why is it important to tell these stories?

Because it raises awareness, helps create consumer pressure and can even drive policy change.

Take this as an example. Every year, 300 million tonnes of perfectly edible and nutritious fruit and vegetables are thrown away worldwide because they don’t fit the beauty standards for fresh produce. Ridiculous right? French Supermarket chain Intermarché thought so too.

In 2014 they ran the ‘Inglorious fruits and vegetables’ campaign to persuade customers to embrace this ‘ugly’ fruit and veg that is rejected by major food retailers.

They gave this ugly produce its own publicity campaign and aisle in the supermarket, as well as a line of soups and smoothies – sweetening the deal with 30% off regular retail price.

Supermarkets could (and actually sometimes do) use this fruit and veg for juices and smoothies anyway and keep schtum about it, but this campaign raised awareness of the much wider issue of food waste, and we bet that it didn’t hurt Intermarché’s profit margins either.

Consumer awareness drives change, and brands will cater to what the public demands.

Consumer awareness drives change, and supermarkets and brands generally will cater to what the public demands. Since then, UK Supermarkets including Asda and Waitrose have followed Intermarché’s lead and started stocking their own ugly fruit.

What’s more, this month the French Government outlawed supermarket food waste, demonstrating the influence that brands can have in initiating real and concrete societal changes.

What this demonstrates is that corporate and environmental objectives do not have to run counter to each other, in fact they can compliment each other.

Storytelling is a tried and tested method of changing consumer behaviour, and who better to tell these stories than brands that already have public attention. You only have to look at the visibility a 3 minute Oscars acceptance speech gets over years and years of campaigning to see how striking this is.

What is clear though, is that this method only works in the long-term when brands put sustainability into the foundations of their business rather than developing a marketing strategy around a shoddy illusion.

As we move into a slightly warmer but hopefully more socially and environmentally aware future, perhaps it’s time for brand leaders to ‘ask not what sustainability can do for you, but what you can do for sustainability’.

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