How can we effectively communicate sustainability?

By Cathy Barlow | February 12, 2020

Sustainability has become the word on everyone’s lips. Whether communicating B2B or B2C, there’s been a shift in attitude towards solving the climate crisis. This has been propelled by the actions of Greta Thunberg and the climate protesters, but also in part thanks to businesses responding to the market’s improved understanding of the need to take action and tackle the climate crisis. These have included technologies such as electric and hybrid cars, smart homes and renewable energy supply, which has helped the conversation to gather speed.

With 93% of global consumers wanting to see more of the brands they use support worthy social and environmental causes – and even three out of four teenagers saying they want to buy more sustainable products – sustainability is more relevant for the consumer than ever before. So, why are brands still struggling to communicate sustainability well and how can they improve their green sell?

A clear definition

To deliver an authentic sustainability message, the definition should be rooted in the idea of the circular economy. The circular economy should benefit everyone through the reuse of materials, energy and water, in addition to encouraging the development of products designed to be used over and over again, whilst also accounting for societal and economic factors. But is this understanding of sustainability universal?

Unfortunately not. Many brands have taken advantage of the sustainability label in order to leverage its selling power, without necessarily delivering a truly sustainable offering. Whilst some brands adhere to more conventional understandings of social and environmental responsibility, or use the term to refer to a sustained rate of growth, others have established their own, sometimes questionable, definitions.

What is greenwashing?

Too often, ‘sustainable’ has been slapped across adverts and products, manufactured in bright green and sold with a false environmental promise, which well-intentioned customers bought into. A classic case is when BP announced, with much fanfare, that it was changing its name to ‘Beyond Petroleum’, with the heavy implication that a commitment to renewable energy was top of its agenda. Criticism swiftly followed this move, as the company had spent more on the rebrand than it had on renewable energy the previous year. Alongside the new name and logo, BP made the significant pledge to spend $8.3 billion on renewable energy over ten years – a bold sounding promise that, in reality, only equated to 5% of its capital investment, with the remaining 95% still spent on oil and gas. Even this was undermined as, in the years that followed, BP slowly but surely backed out of many of its gestures towards sustainability, selling off its solar energy business and announcing that its only significant ‘alternative’ energy investments would now be in biofuels – which, despite being less polluting than gas or coal, still present serious environmental concerns.

That isn’t to say that greenwashing is always a deliberate move to deceive customers and boost sales. It can also be a careless mistake by uninformed marketers. It’s important to consciously avoid the accidental greenwashing which can occur through the use of fluffy or suggestive language and pictures, jargon used to overcomplicate and mislead, or emphasising one tiny sustainable element when everything else is harmful.

It is important to recognise that, whether intended or not, greenwashing is damaging, not just to the wider understanding of sustainability, but it can also harm a brand’s reputation. Consumer behaviour is changing and recent research has demonstrated that 44% of genZ and 41% of millennials are most likely to look for an alternative product if a brand wasn’t honest about social, environmental or health issues. Statistics like these show how younger customers expect brands and their products to be produced and marketed with integrity, challenging the greenwashing that has been so prevalent in the past.

Benefits not barriers

Truly sustainable products are better for the planet, and the people who use them. This is particularly true within the context of the built environment, as an area in which economic, environmental, health and social sustainability heavily intersect.

There is a tendency to focus on the barriers to sustainable business practices and products but, instead, companies should consider the many benefits it offers. When exploring the business case, these can be broken down into three separate categories:

· Functional: How can sustainable innovations or practices positively affect quality, productivity, cost and profit, or offer competitive advantages?

· Emotional: How can a more holistic approach to sustainability meet the needs of your consumers and/or employees? What is the ‘human’ drive at the heart of the messaging or business changes, which can connect with your consumers and their needs?

· Social: How can sustainable products and practices create positive experiences and spaces, which foster community and reduce isolation? How can they improve well-being?

Effective messaging

Sustainability is an essential part of our future and should be embraced by brands and individuals alike, but it is vital that this is carried out with honesty, clarity and integrity. Selling sustainability without actually delivering sustainability will do more damage than good in the long run and undermines consumer trust.

Improving your green sell and effectively communicating sustainability does not need to be complicated if it is underpinned by these key elements:

1. Act on a clear definition.

2. Don’t mislead or ‘greenwash’.

3. Understand the barriers

4. Provide benefits.

Smith Goodfellow is incredibly fortunate to represent and work with numerous clients who have solid commitments to ensure a sustainable future – for our planet and its people. If you want to know more about the work we do with our clients, and are interested in chatting with us, then get in touch here.

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