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Communicating Sustainability Practices to Your Consumers: Finding the Middle Ground

Times have changed, and the tables have turned. Consumers have more power than ever and companies have never had to work so hard to earn the sale of every product and hour of service. One reason for this power shift has been access to information: never before have consumers been able to learn so much about the companies that manufacture their favorite products or share their opinions about those products.

Increased access has led to increased transparency and attention by companies to how they run their business. The concept of sustainability is not new, but now more than ever how a product is made is as important as what that product is. 

Consumers are hungry for information and terms such as “greenwashing” have emerged as a way to let companies know that they are paying attention, and they know a real commitment to sustainability when they see it.  Since there are no current standards for what makes a company or product “green” however, “greenwashing” has proliferated among companies trying to position their brand as environmentally-friendly by heavily promoting select products or business practices and turning a blind eye to the rest.

The scrutiny some companies have faced may make others think twice before publicizing their own sustainability efforts. While “greenwashing” is certainly not an advisable approach, neither is silence. The thought of companies not talking about what they are doing in terms of sustainability is just as scary as a world full of exaggerated claims and selective storytelling.  We must find a middle ground.

Putting competitive advantage and product sales aside for a moment, the end goal is to figure out a way to make our businesses and our planet sustainable. In order to do this, we need innovation, and innovation springs from inspiration. One reason companies can’t be silent about their sustainable business practices is that without open communication, we will attempt to innovate in silos. When information on successes, new ideas and breakthroughs is exchanged however, businesses inspire each other to do even better, to top each other’s best efforts. In the case of an area as new and unknown as sustainable business, we cannot afford modesty. 

The recent BSR Conference, called “Sustainability: Leadership Required” held a session on Greenwashing that offered advice on how to find that middle ground and leverage your company’s sustainable successes — both to foster new ideas and to communicate with consumers in a meaningful way.  The following are some key takeaways from that session.

Honesty is the best policy
Consumers these days are educated about what real sustainability looks like.  Jeffrey Hollender, President and Chief Inspired Protagonist of well-known green company Seventh Generation, considers it his responsibility to be completely transparent about his company’s practices.  For example, while Seventh Generation specializes in natural products, Hollender emphasizes that this does not necessarily mean they are wholly green from a sustainability perspective.  Since Seventh Generation is forthcoming about this, consumers don’t feel like they are being subjected to greenwash, and companies are protecting themselves from a corporate responsibility perspective.

Listen to your consumers
One of the best ways to communicate appropriately and avoid greenwash is to focus on what your consumers really want to hear.  Colleen Chapman, Director of External Affairs at Starbucks, emphasizes the importance of this at a company where – while the consumer is generally mainstream – much is expected, given the size of the company.  Starbucks launched a website called mystarbucksidea.com, where consumers could make recommendations for improvement.  Even though Starbucks promotes its commitment to sustainability through recycled products and fair trade products, one resounding request made by consumers is that baristas recycle in-store waste.  Starbucks realized that sometimes it’s important to focus on what the consumer sees in addition to what makes the biggest impact.

Be careful how you communicate
For one, you should make sure that you’re speaking about sustainability in an accurate scope: a sustainable product is different from a sustainable company.  Hollender cited the example of Clorox’s new Green Works natural cleaners, as one where a particular product line may be environmentally friendly but the rest of the company should make no such claim.  Additionally, Lucy Shea from Futerra Sustainability Communications emphasized the appropriate way to talk about products so that you don’t accidentally or deliberately make false claims.  For instance, don’t use vague words like “eco-friendly” or copyrighted words like “organic” if you aren’t sure that they actually apply.

Brag when appropriate
There’s no question that consumers respond favorably to companies with sustainable products and business practices.  But, as Hollender announced at the onset of the session, it is not good enough for companies to put their energy into being less bad than their competition.  Instead, companies should raise the bar of what’s expected in the corporate sphere and challenge others to exceed expectations.  Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, was brought up as an exemplary leader in this sense.  In reflecting on his company’s vision, he explained, “Perhaps the real good that Patagonia could do was to use the company as a tool for social change as a model to show other companies that a company can do well by taking the long view and doing the right thing.”

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