This story reflects the views of the author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
Every day, you dutifully separate your recyclables from your trash. Then you notice your neighbor just skips the hassle and tosses everything into a single garbage can. “What’s wrong with that guy?”
You’re not alone in your annoyance. Much like the shift we went through on smoking and littering, we’re clearly in the middle of a massive cultural shift when it comes to sustainability. Like tossing a cigarette butt out the car window, it will soon be socially unacceptable to waste water, squander energy, throw aluminum cans in the trash . . . or even buy from companies deemed to be mistreating the planet.
What does that mean for companies? If you don’t start baking sustainability and corporate social responsibility into your products and company brand, you’ll soon start feeling it on your bottom line.
Allow me to explain. At Shelton Group, we help companies build brands and sell products by packaging and artfully telling their sustainability stories. Thus, we poll Americans on an ongoing basis–and have for 12 years now–to understand what they believe and what they’re doing related to sustainability, and how those beliefs and behaviors ladder up to brand preferences and product purchases.
Three years ago we started to see some noticeable jumps in our Eco Pulse trending data, so much so that at first we thought we had an anomaly in the data (or a bad sample set; we randomly poll a representative sample of 2,000 Americans online each time). Then last year we saw jumps again, and we’re seeing some of those trends continue this year as our latest data is coming in from the field.
The gist is this:
Today, 45% of Americans want to be seen as someone who buys eco-friendly products.
More than half of Americans now know or believe a product is green because of the environmental reputation of the manufacturer. In other words, they don’t believe the product is green if they don’t believe the company behind the product is green.
Half of Americans can think of a time when they’ve purchased or not purchased a product because of the environmental reputation of the manufacturer.
Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those people can cough up the name of the brand–thus, about a third of Americans can give a real example of a time they’ve put their wallets where their values are.
These trends are even stronger with millennials. Our recent Millennial Pulse report found that when millennials trust a company’s social and environmental practices, 90% say they’ll buy from that brand, and 95% say they’ll recommend the products to their friends and family (largely via social media). Those are some important numbers for brands. A recent report found millennials spend some $600 billion every year. By 2020, experts predict that figure will grow to $1.4 trillion annually and represent 30% of total retail sales.
That’s why it’s critical for companies to get in front of this wave now. You don’t have to be a “social purpose native,” a brand with a social cause so connected to the product or service that it’s hard to imagine the brand surviving without it as noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article. In other words, you don’t have to be Toms Shoes or Patagonia or Seventh Generation. You can be a “social purpose immigrant,” a company that has prospered without an easily identifiable social-purpose strategy and is now developing one. Just look at the brands noted by millennials as brands they trust when it comes to their environmental and/or social practices:
- Whole Foods
- The Honest Company
It’s a mix of social purpose natives and social purpose immigrants. For millennials, it’s about doing the right thing AND having scale. Walmart’s made a concerted effort on the environment, and while some people deride them for the company’s social practices, many appreciate that they have the scale to make a huge impact and want to reward them and keep them rolling down that path.
We’ve come a long way. Being eco-friendly is no longer considered a fringe activity limited to activists and early adopters. Thanks to years of green growth, messaging, and new products, the idea of sustainability has permeated the American conscience. Any lingering stigma around “being green” is gone; in fact, it’s the new normal.
It’s a matter of identity, who are we and how do we want to be viewed and thought of. We know brands are a means of identity creation in consumer societies. And with the shift of sustainability into the realm of identity creation, there is a clear opportunity for authentically sustainable brands to help mainstream America live up to their best selves. In fact, proponents of “movement marketing” will tell you that joining the dialogue and aligning your brand with deeply held beliefs is the marketing of the future.
Take Unilever, for example. In 2010, the company launched the “Unilever Sustainable Living Plan,” a blueprint for sustainable business to drive profitable growth, save costs, fuel innovation, and build trust. “We believe that business must be part of the solution,” Unilever said. “But to be so, business will have to change; there is no ‘business as usual anymore.’ Sustainable, equitable growth is the only acceptable business model.”
Unilever committed to meaningfully righting its environmental footprint while doubling sales. According to its website, Unilever now has “18 sustainable living brands including Dove, Lipton, and Hellman’s, which all have a clear purpose relating to a social or environmental concern.” In 2016, these brands delivered 60% of Unilever’s growth, and they’re growing over 50% faster than the rest of the business.
Your company (or client) can do the same thing. Decide upon and then announce your commitment to solve a Big Hairy Environmental Problem, start taking action, and then tell the story of what you’re doing, what you’re learning and the impact you’re making (Commit-Do-Say). Make sure what you commit to and do aligns with how your brand is perceived and makes sense for your category (for example, if you’re in the energy category they want to hear what you’re doing on renewables, not how you’re recycling at your facilities). And tell the story with transparency and humility. That doesn’t mean it has to be uber-serious, by the way; humor is okay and very appealing.
Bottom line: Don’t smoke, don’t litter, and be a sustainable brand–or risk losing your marketplace advantage.
Suzanne Shelton is president and CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications agency focused exclusively on energy and the environment. A copy of Eco Pulse can be downloaded here, and a copy of the Millennial Pulse can be downloaded here.