Is consumer engagement the key to cleaning up?

SC Johnson has been manufacturing cleaning products since 1886 - and owns some of the world's best-known brands. But now the company's green credentials are becoming almost as important as its cleaning credentials. Sustainability manager Will Archer tells Leigh Stringer why changing consumer behaviour surrounding sustainable purchasing decisions is so high on the business agenda

Having worked for SC Johnson for more than 30 years Will Archer has witnessed the company’s sustainability evolution first-hand, a large part of which has meant getting to grips with the changing attitudes of consumers.

According to Archer, the company has been a front-runner in consumer engagement and behavioural change for some time, largely due to its private company status.

“We are very fortunate to be a privately-held family company, as this gives us a lot of latitude and flexibility in everything we do, particularly in the domain of sustainability and consumer engagement” he says. As not being subject to the whim of the stock market, allows the company to “do what is right” – something consumers increasingly expect as standard from big business.

“People expect companies to go beyond the health and the environmental impact of a product,” says Archer. “They are looking for the company to be a responsible corporate citizen.

“And to become a responsible corporate citizen every business needs to look at its corporate strategy and ask ‘are we looking at the bigger picture?” Behavioural change is something that must ripple through the supply chain, not just at a consumer or government level, he says.

And Archer strongly believes that engaging with consumers is key to engaging with its supply chain as well, adding that increasing the public’s knowledge about the sustainable options at point of purchase is vital in driving the shift to adoption and driving sustainable choices. If the consumer is unaware of the options and facts they cannot make that rational decision, he says.

“We are learning a lot in this respect and we are doing a lot online with our Green Choices Marketplace where we are offering concentrated products and positioning them from the environmental perspective to say that these products ship less plastic and use less water and have other benefits, so why not try them”.

However, consumers are not shifting towards sustainable decisions as quickly as hoped, he says. This point is backed up by SC Johnson research from 2011, which looked at the level of knowledge of environmental issues amongst its American consumers.

The results showed that although the level of knowledge has risen significantly in the past 20 years, that increase did not necessarily lead to a greater sense of accountability.

“The fact is, that we as a company consider ourselves as a responsible corporation in the way we behave, but equally consumers have responsibility. I get frustrated when I see people throwing recyclable materials in the trash. How easy is it to put it in the right container?” says Archer. “In somewhere like Japan, you buy a soda bottle and the label is perforated and you peel the label off and you put it in a container and you put the bottle in another container and you can take the cap off and put that in a third container”.

“So why is it that people outside of Japan are not more diligent? We conduct research and consumers often tell you how green they are but in reality a lot of it is peer pressure and they don’t actually do it.

“There is a certain percentage which varies by country, but in the US less than 10% of people are truly green. However, it is growing and we’re learning about our role as a company, which is to make those choices easier for consumers so that they can intuitively make the choice and also with the minimal amount of effort”.

Through consumer awareness and online initiatives Archer is hoping that SC Johnson customers will begin to make that leap – and encouraging them to do so makes sound business sense. If consumers begin making more sustainable choices when shopping, demonstrating an appetite for those products, then retailers will take note and increase those listings, giving more shelf space to the brands and products in demand.

“We’re doing this because there is reluctance from the retail trade to engage in those products and also because we need to learn from consumers about what they like and what they don’t like about the products”.

“We are trying to gain an understanding of this so we can bring it to the mass market place, through the Asdas in the UK and the Tescos who, until we provide them with a good story or good data behind it, are reluctant to take [the products].

“From their perspective consumers don’t want concentrates because it’s an extra step for them and it takes more work on their part”.

Archer explains that this opens up opportunities in understanding what the company can do to satisfy the consumers’ needs while finding ways to improve the sustainability of its products. Further research carried out by the company last year also looked at who should be responsible for driving the sustainability agenda. Respondents from the US ranked the government as the primary body responsible for driving the sustainability agenda, followed by individuals and then business and industry.

Results for the same research carried out in 1990 told a different story. The top reason cited for environmental problems was directed toward business through factories and plants causing pollution.

“We all have a role to play; governments, companies and individuals. My concern with government legislation is that most of the time they are following a political agenda and it’s usually ill-informed”, says Archer.

Archer agrees that legislation is necessary in some cases but believes businesses should be driving the sustainability agenda forward voluntarily.

“Many companies are adopting the same view, but a lot don’t; especially smaller companies who just don’t get the bigger picture in my experience -they need to be regulated,” he says. On the flip side, “regulations can be cumbersome because they try and become all-encompassing and that sometimes impacts activity and is damaging to the business.

“In my experience there’s a lot of history in this industry with people believing that it’s always been this way with a ‘leave us alone we haven’t caused any problems’ kind of attitude, but we don’t subscribe to that view point. We think we need to move forward and be transparent and open in what we’re doing and work with and for our consumers.”

Archer points out that statistics indicate that by the year 2050, if the population continues to grow at the rate it is currently growing, we will need two and a half planets to sustain life.

“That is not long away – I have kids that will still be alive then and their kids will be alive”.

“We need to do something about it – I heard just this week that 25% of food never makes it to the table and that’s just wrong when people are starving in Mali. There is only so much a company like SC Johnson can do in that situation, we can take leadership but we need to bring other people along with it and that’s one of the reasons we set our own goals internally. More companies need to take the perspective of what can we do independently or collaboratively to work together for the greater good.”

View an SC Johnson infographic here

Leigh Stringer

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