Sustainability: An imperative commitment & a pragmatic challenge

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Sustainability is an imperative commitment. Universally consumers and brands alike are acknowledging the need to preserve the planet so our families, and specifically our children, can inherit a world in which they can live safe, healthy and long lives.

When we look specifically to Sustainability as a corporate imperative, at Behaviorally (formerly PRS), we passionately believe that there is a need for a pragmatic set of guidelines that are actionable, and meaningful, beyond a marketing construct or even a just noble aspiration. Done right, Sustainability can and should drive business growth.

A good place to start would be a definition, and the best we have found for Sustainability in business comes from a 2018 Business Insider interview with Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder and former CEO of the sustainable consumer product company, Seventh Generation. He defined sustainability as “a systematic approach to thinking about the total impact a business has on the planet, as well as society.” Taken as a foundation of any Sustainability initiative this should translate to the way in which companies conduct themselves, organize their businesses, engage employees, and communicate their brand purposes to customers as consumers.

As a consumer myself, I can say that I join others trying to do our best to commit to sustainable choices that make the world a better place in all aspects of life, and the lives of the people our businesses influence.

In our role as trusted advisers, there is no more important purpose we can help our clients achieve than to structure their shopper marketing and product development with Sustainability as an underlying principle. Not only is it good for the planet, but we would argue, if it is well executed and embraced by consumers, such a strategy will be good for business!

Many companies are already taking steps to commit to concrete sustainable practices:

  • For over a decade, Unilever has put “sustainable living” and “purpose” at the core of their mission and strategy, reinforcing the message that “lots of small actions make a big difference” across their extensive line of consumer products.
  • UK grocery retailer, Sainsbury has announced a goal to halve plastic packaging by 2025.
  • Boots, the UK retailer and cosmetics manufacturer, is working to cut plastic from its online business by the end of 2020 and reports having taken 148 tons of plastic out of this year’s holiday line.
  • Clorox has publicly committed that by the end of 2020 90% of their products will come in recyclable primary packaging.
  • General Mills tracks the sustainable sourcing of 10 priority ingredients, including palm oil, dairy milk, and sugar beets, aiming to sustainably source 100% of these ingredients by 2020.
  • Fashion icon, Prada recently announced perhaps the most creative sustainability initiative signing perhaps the first business loan in the luxury goods sector linking the annual interest rate to practices that help the environment.

If we all agree as businesses and consumers that sustainability is worthy of a commitment to “do good in order to do well”, it will inevitably be successful, right?  After all, most consumers, especially millennials, value sustainability when within their choice architecture.

The “Elusive Green Consumer”

Consumer sentiment is multilayered and complicated; what consumers say is not necessarily what they do. Despite all of us consumers, myself included, saying we value sustainability, in principle, this doesn’t necessarily translate in practice to what we buy.

In a recent HBR article, University of British Columbia academics reported that the “elusive green consumer” doesn’t actually behave as we would expect:

“In one recent survey 65% said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, yet only about 26% actually do so.”

There are lots of reasons for this disconnect in what consumers actually choose in the shopper “moment of truth”. Behavioral science, as the aforementioned HBR article reveals, can explain a lot of the Drivers of Influence that encourage sustainable buying decisions.

Sometimes unconscious behavioral factors that influence consumers can confuse and derail a sustainable choice.

  • “Sustainable” is often a perplexing claim for consumers to decode, particularly when communicated at the level of product and packaging. Confusion around symbols or even meaning of words inadvertently impact purchase behaviors that brands have invested so heavily to influence. Consumers genuinely struggle sometimes to determine if a product or its packaging recyclable, if it is sourced ethically.  This makes the “sustainable” choice highly cognitive and rational (what behavioral science would call “System 2”) and disadvantageous in the intuitive, instinctive behavior of shoppers, particularly in grocery categories.
  • Convenience, price and loss aversion make habits hard to change. Often unconscious default choices, that don’t advantage a sustainable product choice, are tough to convert in the “hot state” of a path-to-purchase moment in which consumers engage with a brand.
  • Does the product’s packaging strike the right balance between a factual and rational message, and an emotional message that delights consumers and makes the sustainable choice obvious, and almost effortless?
  • The most emotional and persuasive messaging around sustainability, that hits all the behavioral high notes, won’t be effective if a consumer doesn’t “see it” at the moment of truth in the shopper journey. Viewability and comprehension of the sustainability message needs to be carefully validated, especially when the choice is instinctive and almost unconscious.

Scores of companies focusing on complex and costly sustainability initiatives at various stages of maturity are doing the right things. These include manufacturing products from ingredients sourced sustainably and consistently with fair trade practices. Others focus on commitments to packaging made from sustainable materials, that can be easily recycled, and encourage product usage that reduces waste.

When consumers see these manifestations of sustainability as meaningful differentiators in their own lives, they become as powerful a Driver of Influence in buying decisions as any other brand asset.  All the more reason to “do good in order to do well.”

Making Sustainability the Obvious Choice  

 There are no easy answers or “one size fits all” formulas for brands to communicate how their commitments to sustainability initiatives. Every category and product has a nuanced set of behavioral factors for consumers, making the encouragement of sustainable choices a complex challenge.

First and foremost, the actual commitment of brands to sustainability has to be authentic, tangible and visibly measurable. Anything less will be viewed unfavorably by the consumers a brand seeks to influence.

But once the sustainability commitment is agreed at the top of corporations, the task for marketers is to identify all the levers and triggers that communicate the brand’s promise at every stage of the shopper journey, to influence consumer behavior. Regardless of the behavioral factors that impact consumers as they consider product choices (often unconsciously), brands need to be able to shape the consumer engagement so that their sustainability message delights consumers, and manifests at all points in the interaction as compelling, impactful, persuasive and even irresistible.

At Behaviorally (formerly PRS), we feel strongly that Sustainability will be one of the most significant influencers in consumer behavior in coming years. It is embedded in our vision statement and we are committed to doing our best to help our clients achieve practical and actionable ways to ways to create sustainable initiatives that consumers will embrace.

In the coming months we will share detailed learning sof how a behavioral framework can guide your shopper and product marketing strategies around Sustainability. Look for posts, and podcasts, and pragmatic examples of the what we have learned about what can move the “Elusive Green Consumer”, and what is likely to fail.

Whatever your brand and your commitment to sustainability, we aspire to be your partner so this worthy imperative is also an effective strategy that can drive your brand growth, while it also ensures a better world.

Alex Hunt is the CEO of Behaviorally (formerly PRS) and provided this blog post in December 2019 when he was serving as CEO of PRS IN VIVO USA.
Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexHunt84 or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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