As public concern for a greener world continues to strengthen, companies can no longer afford to ignore the significance of its impact on the marketplace. Implementing a sustainability plan and marketing these efforts to the public has quickly become a must-have piece to the strategy puzzle. In general, consumers prefer to support corporations that share in their ideals—companies they trust to be “good” for the community; those who they perceive are acting responsibly by supporting the social, environmental and economic needs of the world. Bottom line: People want to feel that corporations understand their concerns and are acting as a partner to help combat global issues.
Sustainable Marketing 101
According to the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development is the act of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainable marketing, or green marketing, is the marketing of products that are environmentally conscious. In essence, it’s telling the story of how a company is making efforts to help improve the world. Anything from reducing the materials needed for production and implementing a company-wide recycling program, to creating community outreach programs or buying only locally grown, organic products can be important to a consumer.
Suzanne C. Shelton, Founder, President and CEO of Shelton Group, an advertising agency focused on motivating consumers to make sustainable choices, points out that, “Green consumers are not ‘green consumers.’ They’re ‘the most desirable consumers.’”
She goes on to note that, “This group cares about your sustainability and social responsibility story. As they purchase products, they are truly looking to put their money where their values are, and they see the brands they buy as outward expressions of their internal values.
So if they don't know your story, they'll shy away. They'll presume you're a ‘typical’ company whose reason for being is simply to return a profit for your stockholders. And that's not an emotionally compelling reason for them to buy from you.”
Finding a Balance
It’s one thing to implement strategies to become a more sustainable company, reducing the inevitable carbon footprint caused by the production and distribution of products and services; it’s another to do so while remaining successful and competitive in the consumer marketplace. Products and services should be environmentally preferable, but the trade-off cannot be price, quality or convenience.
Although many “green consumers” say they are willing to pay more for sustainable products, the truth is that most won’t pay that much more. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, an increase of just 2 percent may actually turn consumers away, especially if they don’t believe the quality is comparable. As such, regulating prices while effectively communicating quality is essential in sustainable marketing: If consumers don’t believe the product is as good, if not better, than the competitors’, chances are the environmental implications won’t matter.
Similarly, if the process of acquiring a product or service is perceived to be inconvenient, consumers are likely to look to the competition. Green initiatives must be balanced with consumer needs: While consumers may want to support a company that supports the environment, they will demand quality, cost-appropriate and convenient deliverables. Demonstrating that a corporation is focused on social, economic and environmental sustainability yet remains competitive in the marketplace can ensure customer satisfaction and loyalty, and improve a company’s overall reputation.
Many experts believe that the biggest obstacle to successful sustainable marketing is a lack of understanding on the consumers’ side (terms, labels, levels, etc.) coupled with the lack of a standardized, globally-accepted definition of “green.” While a globally-accepted definition of “what’s good enough to be ‘green’” may be farther down the line, educating consumers about eco-friendly claims is imperative to successful sustainable marketing: what they don’t understand, they are quick to dismiss. Moreover, if consumers perceive confusing statements to be exaggerated or fabricated, a company’s credibility can be shattered.
Eco-labeling to the Rescue
One solution to these obstacles is eco-labeling, or the practice of placing third-party “guarantee” statements on packaging and promotional materials. The aim of using eco-labels is to provide consumers with the assurance that all environmental claims are unbiased and standardized, thus increasing credibility. Many consumers are familiar with specific eco-labels, and the presence of these images is enough to elicit immediate trust in a product or service.
With the continued growth of social, economic and environmental concern throughout the world, corporations have a unique opportunity through sustainable marketing: instead of continuing to add to the problem, start being part of the solution. Alter behaviors, encourage others to do so and properly market these efforts: the public will take notice.
And for the companies who don’t? Well, the public will take notice of that, too.