Corporate sustainability efforts have become a year-round discussion, peaking around Earth Day (April 20-22) as companies eagerly volunteer details on how they’re environmental stewards.
Being environmentally conscious is table stakes for consumer consideration—according to Nielsen's Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66 percent of consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, and that figure jumps to 73 percent among millennials. But before waving the sustainability banner, it is crucial to carefully weigh the risks vs. the rewards.
Having a reputation as an environmental crusader comes with a tremendous amount of accountability. When companies set public goals, then fail to maintain their promises, inflate impact or make uninformed declarations they open themselves up to the criticism of greenwashing. Following are a few considerations to ensure you’re seen as a good citizen and changemaker, rather than just another company hopping on the eco-bandwagon.
It takes a village
The real brand heroes are those creating meaningful change by linking arms with competitors to solve challenges, share best practices and elevate their respective industries. They’re having honest, open discussions about shortcomings, then collaborating on solutions and inviting the public along for the journey.
A beautiful example is the recent “Beyond the Bag” initiative driven by Target, Walmart and CVS. These retail giants united to fund a program inviting entrepreneurs and inventors to pitch new ideas to replace the 100 billion plastic bags still used in the United States every year, promising $15 million in investments.
On a smaller scale, yet equally as notable, was when professional haircare brand KEVIN.MURPHY mastered how to create beauty packaging from 100-percent ocean waste plastics and then volunteered to mentor the rest of the industry on how to accomplish this complicated and expensive environmental goal.
To the consumer, these efforts feel authentic and accountable. If you’re helping spur change at a macro level, broadcasting these type of efforts, even it they don't center on your brand, feels less self-congratulatory and can create a deeper connection with your target audience, as it shows you are truly invested in creating a sustainable future.
Going green is not an easy feat. It requires commitment, ingenuity and can be costly. As brands achieve major environmental milestones, they certainly deserve applause for staying the course. However, before sharing the exciting moment with external audiences, take a moment to assess the messaging. Green innovation and conservation efforts can fall flat when other business practices are falling short or even contributing to environmental degradation.
Consider acknowledging how much further your brand has to go, share how you’ll get there and set realistic goals for the organization. Even Patagonia, who received the United Nations' “Champions of the Earth” award, acknowledges the "struggle to become a responsible company." Similarly, sustainable fashion brand Reformation has been carbon neutral since 2015 but despite achieving this goal, declared Climate Positivity as their next mission, an announcement widely praised by their cult following.
As already noted, becoming an environmental warrior as a business is complicated. What may seem like an environmentally sound idea or practice may open your organization up to critique. Before committing to or unveiling green processes and initiatives, it may be beneficial to align with a sustainability focused nonprofit or independent expert.
In addition to offering valuable insight to ensure maximum impact, bringing in an outside expert adds credibility to your mission and can mitigate greenwashing accusations. For example, the beauty industry is notorious for packaging waste. To demonstrate accountability, beauty retailer Ulta created the Conscious Beauty Advisory Council made up of experts at the forefront of clean beauty, product development and packaging sustainability. Together, they will drive forward the retailer’s sustainability initiative, ensuring Ulta follows through on its pledge that 50 percent of all packaging sold will be made from recycled or bio-sourced materials, or will be recyclable or refillable, by 2025.
Do the right thing
An organization still needs to be profitable, while simultaneously doing good. As you evaluate how or even IF you move forward with this lofty undertaking, the number one consideration must be whether it is a smart business decision. For example, changing an entire business supply chain is an extraordinary expense, and if it negatively affects the consumer’s experience, it can cost you even more. At the end of the day, a business must evaluate if going green is a wise investment. Many brands have faced challenges with their eco-friendly endeavors and discovered it was a costly wrong move.
Becoming a sustainably minded company is a noble cause. It can give purpose to an organization’s employees and is increasingly more important to consumers. But ahead of celebrating your efforts in the public eye, it’s critical to be self-reflective and approach communication and marketing strategies thoughtfully. As you build your environmental impact narrative, weigh the impact, address the future, admit what you don’t know, and be human. No one’s perfect but at least you’re trying.
Mia West is vice president of publicity at Havas Formula.