Keeping up with the customers – why CSR is no longer enough

We are living in an age of information abundance. Consumers are increasingly becoming more demanding and more dubious that brands can keep the promises they make. There is often a sizeable gap between expectation and reality in the products that people buy, and nowhere is this gap more obvious than in the "sustainable" product sector.

Keeping up with the customers – why CSR is no longer enough

It doesn’t have to be this way and the business case for sustainability is strong: a company’s market performance is generally positively affected by implementing environmental strategies. The Economist, in its 2011 survey, backs this up, finding that 76% of senior executives from around the world think that embedding sustainability into a company’s business leads to enhanced reputation and brand value.  Equally, a McKinsey report states that 87% of consumers are concerned about the environment and the social impacts of the products they buy. Another report suggested over 90% of consumers are willing to switch to a brand associated with a good cause. So, with all this goodwill to be earned and with the buying power shifting from boomers to millennials, how can brands ensure they keep up and mine this rich seam of brand appreciation?

Until recently, many companies have implemented a rather lackluster, wishy-washy corporate social responsibility approach and got away with it. But such strategies are now seen to be paying mere lip service to genuine environmental concerns, and as such are seen to lack integrity and substance by an increasingly discerning public. Retailers wanting to compete on the millennial stage must quickly realise that corporate social responsibility is no longer enough – it infers a generic standard to duty, of “going through the motions” and just doing enough to appease consumers. With 80% of millennials expecting companies declare their CSR strategy, how much better would it be if these companies could demonstrate a real positive impact?

Brands needn’t worry; rather than feeling anxious about this building pressure, competitive opportunities can be found. Old CSR strategies offered little for a brand’s approach as a whole – reporting on emissions or adhering to regulations are costly and necessary, but often do not offer much for enhancing a brand’s core character. So, enter ‘Positive Impact’. Positive impact strategies offer a more holistic approach to improving a business’s overall mission. Such policies have quantifiable business benefits and positive social outcomes.

But how do you implement a good positive impact strategy? The key is to be authentic – social impact is not about greenwashing, which has little benefit to society and which consumers can see through.  Social impact is most effective when you choose a strategy which aligns with your brand. Whole Foods, for example, has built its brand around the slogan “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet”.  Therefore, it ensures its products are healthy for its customers, are organic from sustainable sources, which nurture rather than degrade the environment. In all these ways, the brand lives up to its reputation as a truly sustainable store.

Stella McCartney, a fashion retailer with a mission to show that luxury and environmental sustainability can co-exist, also integrates sustainability seamlessly within the brand. Stella McCartney understands the sustainability problems that surround fashion and is using them for the brand’s advantage. While fast fashion is creating a huge problem with waste, Stella McCartney’s garments are created to last. The brand also aims to continually improve process efficiency to reduce waste and emissions. Stella has also ensured that none of her designs ever use leather or animal fur (which as well as being fatal to the animals, are extremely resource and energy intensive).

When choosing a positive strategy, businesses should also consider the factors that make a real tangible impact. It can be easy to choose a strategy that looks good at first glance, but are actually doing little good in the world. M&S’s ‘Plan A’ is a shining example of a well-thought-out strategy that has looked into the retail world’s most pressing problems, and works to fix them. Plan A has five key objectives; to become carbon neutral, send no waste to landfill, extend sustainable sourcing, help improve the lives of people in the supply chain, and help customers and employees live a healthier lifestyle. All these objectives set out a clear path for M&S to make a positive impact on the world. Letting consumers know what they are doing will enhance M&S’ reputation as a leading force in retailing.

Lastly, positive impact need not cost the earth in marketing budgets and jumping through green hoops – in fact, retailers should not shy away from strategies that help boost their bottom line, as well as make a positive impact on the world. By using energy efficiently, and even cutting costs further by using renewable resources, your brand will not only be ensuring that harmful greenhouse gasses are not polluting the atmosphere, but also that you are not pouring money down the drain. Strategies that also involve money saving measures will be sure to be long-lasting and widely acknowledged by investors and other stakeholders. ASOS has incorporated energy efficiency and renewables into its strategy by installing solar panels and wind turbines at their distribution hub, which could help cut over 2,000tCO2e annually. Its green credentials will appeal to its green customer base, whilst the cost-saving will improve its bottom line.

The benefits of an authentic positive impact strategy for businesses are clear, whether you want to strengthen your brand, improve your profits, or make our world a bit better to live in.

Imogen Geddes is an anlayst at Carbon Smart

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