By now, it’s no secret – doing good business often means having a negative impact on the environment. No industry is exempt from that fact – but no industry, barring the fossil fuel industry, is exempt from the possibility of real, positive change.
More and more businesses are embracing that fact – the ability to break new ground, and offer customers the opportunity to be a part of progress, rather than contributing to the issue as it unfolds. As customers, we are getting more conscious of brands that are authentic in their pursuit of sustainability – and, thankfully, many businesses are responding to that awareness.
But how important is it? The world is growing more aware of the climate crisis by the day, but is the ‘average consumer’ really motivated to pursue change?
What Does Emphasising Sustainability Look Like?
There are so many ways to implement more sustainable practices in business. Regular sustainability audits will identify key areas for improvement, and publishing those goals to a public space will ensure that customers are always up to date on your progress – and the direction you’re heading in.
A commercial solar installation acts as a clear, incontrovertible signpost to those in the local area. It’s an excellent way to demonstrate your company’s values to customers – and, at the same time, to reduce the cost of your bills. Similarly, installing EV charging points for employees and customers to use when they are on-site will put you ahead of the curve, and demonstrate your commitments to sustainability at the same time.
But not all efforts need to be quite so momentous. Running a sustainable office or commercial space means addressing the smallest factors – recycling and cleaning practices – as well as the biggest factors, like the suppliers you choose to work with, and how you manage distribution.
In a word – us.
The more climate change is being covered by the mainstream media, the more aware we are all becoming of the sheer scope of our unsustainable practices. While, once, climate change could be summarised by an image of a smoking industrial chimney pumping dirty air into the sky, or perhaps an offshore oil rig looming menacingly on the horizon, the past few years have proven to the general public that its impact is far wider spread. Fast fashion, travel, tech, cosmetics, food production – even wholefoods like avocados, soybeans and fish.
Our household cleaning products are taking a toll on the planet, with the manufacture of common chemicals responsible for the equivalent of 40,000 cars’ worth of carbon emissions year on year, the Guardian reported.
Our pets, too, are making their own carbon footprints on the planet – the equivalent of around 13.6 million cars, by some estimates. Even many of the plants we keep in our houses are accompanied by a hefty carbon footprint. The sports we watch, the films we enjoy – even the medicines we depend on, are all significant contributors to global warming. That sharp incline, beginning somewhere towards the beginning of the industrial revolution, is growing steeper still.
Living a modern life inevitably means harming the environment, but it also means witnessing the decline of the world around us. More so than ever, we are being met with proof of global warming in the form of natural disasters – flooding, fires, drought, famine, disease – as well as increasingly ominous warnings of a near-future much more difficult than the recent past.
It's no wonder that the average consumer is growing increasingly circumspect about what they buy, and which brands they align themselves with. Think With Google recently found that 75% of the general public feel that, if we don’t make a major change to our lifestyles in the next decade, future generations will be in jeopardy. What’s more, more than half of the public (55%) feel that it is more important than ever for companies to be more sustainable as a result of Covid-19.
But what are consumers looking for?
An End to Greenwashing
We’ve all seen it – many of us have even, at some time or another, been drawn in by it. Greenwashing is, broadly, the practise of putting across a false impression of sustainability and environmental concern in order to boost business and/or charge a premium.
We recently discussed the EU’s growing impatience for companies that mislead consumers with vague language, disingenuous advertising campaigns and deceptive packaging – anything designed to appeal to that growing interest in sustainable alternatives. You can read more about the draft here, along with the fines being threatened to companies who continue to toe the line with customers.
Since then, the EU have also moved to ban claims of carbon neutrality when that supposed ‘neutrality’ is obtained through carbon offsetting – a highly controversial practice that enables businesses to continue releasing high volumes of CO2 into the atmosphere while reaping the benefits of a more environmentally conscious public image.
A (Justifiably) Higher Price Point
In 2020, just over a third of Gen X consumers were willing to pay 10% more for sustainable products. By 2022, that number had risen to just under 90%.
We know that environmental consciousness comes at a price. Mass production, cheaper manufacturing materials, and cheaper, single-use products all tend to have a profoundly negative impact on the world. From natural, slowly produced fabrics like linen and hemp fabric to reusable products made from wood or metal rather than plastic, what’s considered premium tends to be what’s sustainable.
The good news is that the public are not pushing back against that trade-off. Where possible, the overwhelming majority of us are willing to pay a little more to know that we’re not actively contributing to the climate crisis, whether we’re doing the weekly shop or investing in big-ticket items.
This willingness to pay more for better practices is, of course, the root cause of the greenwashing pandemic that dominated the consumer goods industry for the past few years. However, with tighter restrictions – and stronger sanctions – those traps laid by unsavoury businesses and corporations should soon recede into the history books.
A Clearer Commitment
In the past, brands could get away with holding back from social and political issues, provided they weren’t directly related to their industry.
The rise of social media inevitably meant that the line between the world of business and the world of people started to blur and, as a result, customers started to look for more. When it comes to naming and striving toward values like equality, accessibility, and sustainability, actions now speak much, much louder than words.
More than half of consumers now what brands to take a stand on social media. And, as we grow increasingly suspicious of greenwashing practices, actually taking a stand will require more concrete action from businesses.
No business has the power to turn sustainable overnight. While some certainly get a head start – a local food seller is ahead of the curve compared with, say, a travel company – there’s no such thing as instant results when it comes to improving your environmental impact.
Brands that are just starting out on their sustainability journey don’t need to shy away from the fact that that they’re still in those early phases. Authenticity is key when it comes to any interactions with customers, and being frank about where you are – and where you plan to be X weeks, months, or years from now – is the best way to get people on-side for the long-haul.
A Positive Impact on Customers
Shrinking our carbon footprints and living a more sustainable way of life is no longer a way of ‘shedding guilt’, but of feeling better about ourselves. Taking efforts to live a sustainable lifestyle gives people a sense of purpose and positivity. A journal article published to Scientific Reports recently found that countries with a higher SDG (Sustainability Development Goals) index generally perform better when it comes to well-being, too.
This sense of purpose and well-being is a powerful tool for businesses. Building emotional connections with customers is the key to long-term success – now more so than ever.
Sustainability into the Future
The fight for sustainability isn’t going away. As the world moves closer and closer toward its target of carbon neutrality by the year 2050 – and our headlines are dominated by a growing number of natural disasters and humanitarian crises brought about by the climate crisis – it’s inevitable that more of us will consider ourselves part of the demographic looking for commitment, values, and action from the brands we choose.
And, of course, these days bring more choices than ever before. The opportunities for customers to jump ship to brands that can put sustainability at the forefront will continue to grow, not least of all because the higher costs of sustainable products and services are no longer the deterrent that they once were. While sustainability and eco-friendliness may once have been a passing trend – one that certain brands could adopt without doing the legwork – it’s now a powerful motivator behind consumer habits, and the key to success into the future.