Selling sustainability: Business culture more effective than 'green' products

EXCLUSIVE: Companies should stop 'selling' sustainability and focus on creating products and brands that have green credentials embedded as a core value, industry experts have argued.

Eileen Donnelly admitted that consumers are driven by price rather than product messages

Eileen Donnelly admitted that consumers are driven by price rather than product messages

Speaking at edie’s Sustainable Leaders Forum in London on Thursday (19 November), representatives from PZ Cussons, AkzoNobel and Heineken advised delegates that gaining consumer trust has become critical for them to care about sustainability.

A poll at the start of the Forum revealed that 78% of delegates in attendance believed eco labels on products fail to spark behaviour change among consumers. PZ Cussons’ director of sustainability and communications Eileen Donnelly explained that consumers remain driven by price rather than product messages.

“Consumers aren’t necessarily looking for this message in the way that they look for a price promotion message," Donnelly said. "We are trying to take the complexity out of branding and give them a message that they don’t actually want."

Comfort zone

Donnelly added that consumers don’t have time to scan barcodes in the refrigerated isles in supermarkets, or watch sustainable sourcing videos while they are shopping for fruit and vegetables. “People habitually gravitate towards the same familiar things. It’s really hard to change this behaviour and it requires a special intervention," she said.

Customers can simply be split into those who want to engage with a company and those who don’t, Donnelly said, warning that the danger is "slipping into a comfort zone where you can begin to ignore sustainability as an issue entirely". The recent Volkswagen scandal was used as an example of how rejecting a sustainable ethos can seriously harm you as a business.

Donnelly added: “Keeping sustainability as a central value to your entire company protects your image. It is the way you should run your business. Boards will want to stick sustainability on a pack and flaunt it, but it’s really not that interesting, because it should be the norm for companies.

“Sustainability needs to be a part of the entire value proposition of the entire company, a part of its corporate soul. Unless it is relevant to the customer, just don’t tell them that what you’re selling is sustainable.”

Customers come first

As a leader on the Dow Jones Index AkzoNobel is now painted as a company that has sustainability embedded as a core value but, as global sustainability director Chris Cook pointed out, work needs to be done on creating a "depth of understanding" of what a company’s values are.

“You can ram messages down throats as much as you like but it’s not going to make much difference. There’s a halo around brand trust and people trust brands they use to do the right thing.

“You just need to make sure that there is a story about the brand, rather than the product, which is in the background for the few people who actually want it.

“What you have to do to move people on to more sustainable solutions is to have practical benefits which interest consumers which also happen to be sustainable.”

Shape the message

Also speaking at edie's Forum was Michael Dickstein, director of global sustainable development at beverage giant Heineken, which has made waves with its ‘Brewing a better future’ initiative.

Dickstein suggested that, in an era where we a tripping over climate topics everywhere we look, shaping the message of your business will produce the best financial and sustainable results.

“There’s no need to try and convince people of what you’re selling," he said. "You just find the common ground that both businesses and consumers are interested in which is usually a profit, and in today’s environment responsibility promotes profit.”

The Forum concluded by promoting the image of an honest, transparent company which in turn will create engaged, loyal customers who are "dedicated and committed brand ambassadors".

Matt Mace


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