4 Key Insights to Growing Your Sustainable Brand

With trends showing consumer patience wavering toward brands without ethical business practices, it is clear that brands no longer have the luxury of ignoring the implementation of sustainable practices and climate change solutions. While pursuing eco-consciousness does not require lowering overall material production, it does require the efficient allocation of energy and resources and the mitigation of existing waste streams. A recent report by Nielsen shows sales of sustainable products reached $107.3 billion in 2014 and is predicted to reach between $142 billion and $150 billion by 2021.

Noted as the generation most likely to pay extra for sustainable products, Millennial demand drives the charge for sustainable consumer purchasing with almost 75% agreeing they would prefer sustainable and ethical product offerings.

However, preference does not necessarily translate to sales. An article in the July-August 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review discovered the ‘purchase intention gap' – an almost 40% gap between the 65% of consumers that say they intend to buy from brands that advocate for sustainability and the 26% of consumers that actually do.

This group of consumers is the key battleground for brands. As a culture suffering from what has been coined ‘sustainability inertia’ or the oversaturation and underperformance of so-called ‘sustainable’ brands, consumer apathy cannot be motivated to purchase simply with ‘because it’s good for the environment’. The issue is consumers that show care for the environment through purchases are more likely to be won over by price, quality and competitive functional benefits.

The crux of the matter is this: if the price, quality and functional benefits were equal between sustainable and non-sustainable products, the average consumer would choose sustainability – but that is not the case.

So how do you start? Are there ways to authentically build sustainability into the core of your brand regardless of which industry you belong to? Yes, and we have outlined four broad insights brands can follow to become more sustainable.

Do not greenwash

Let’s start with a warning. Within the category of sustainable, many brands have been over-eager to jump on the sustainability train for the sake of relevancy. Launching a comprehensive marketing campaign centred on sustainability, brands neglect to recognise that authentic sustainability must come with a value change that affects production, shipping, packaging and more. Usually, hyper-aware consumers realize the lack of genuine change and shun the brand – personally and publically. Learning from previous mistakes, implementing sustainability is not shallow and should permeate the whole business and brand culture at every level.

Play to the community

The power of environmental change lies in the masses. Without a community of people deciding to make lifestyle changes, purchase sustainable products and reduce waste, the potential for actual change dwindles. Therefore, it is important to take certain measures and use certain tools to harness social influence and shape good behaviour to leverage a domino effect.

Humans are responsive to the actions of other people and one of the best ways to encourage environmental practices is to use social influence. In a study about nudging sustainable consumption, eco-friendly purchases increased by 65% when online shoppers were told that other people were buying sustainable products. Additionally, when people see other people using sustainable products, they are more likely to pick up similar behaviour. A study by Nature Research found that advocates were most compelling when they themselves had undertaken the behaviour or used a product themselves, with 63% more people following their lead than when they are not personally involved. Policies like straw-bans and prompts like signs near recycling bins can increase better behaviour by more than 50%.

For brands, use social influence by showing internal initiatives and company policy changes towards being more environmentally friendly. Use influencers and engage with like-minded communities online and in-person to reinforce your identity as a sustainable brand. Through interaction, transparency, empowerment and trust, your brand can encourage sustainable behaviour leading to more sales and change.

From the heart of the matter

If you are creating a new sustainable brand or trying to implement sustainability into your brand, persuade people by appealing to their emotions and their sense of responsibility for the earth.  Appeal to people’s sense of guilt over not helping the planet by using subtle messaging and positive tone of voice. Appeal to their sense of loss aversion – the preference of avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains – as well as frame communication and images in a way that communicates what is at stake, personally and globally, if sustainable choices are not made. Another way to appeal to consumer emotions is to localize messages to places or reference points that hold personal power over people.


Show don’t tell

Your brand will only be believable if you are able to back up what you way with what you do. Show full insights and reports on your carbon emissions, packaging material, production process, offsetting initiative, etc. Companies like Everlane, a clothing company that went from nothing to making $100 million in revenue, captured consumers and changed the game through its 'radical transparency'; outlining each garments total cost by the cost of material, hardware, labour, transport and duties.

Invite collaboration between your brand, other brands, larger movements and individuals aligned with sustainability. Give to non-profit groups combating climate change, host forums and panels about relevant topics and overall just make sure your company takes steps to reinforce its marketing and messaging with actual action. In 2016, Patagonia donated $10 million from Black Friday sales to support grassroot environmental groups dedicated to preserving and improving the planet – a stark contrast to its not-so-green competitors that use Black Friday for personal advancement. Sustainability cannot remain unsubstantiated by facts. Consumers notice when brands are all talk, so ensuring your brand takes action is crucial.

Being an authentic, sustainable brand may seem difficult against phenomena like the purchase intention gap, sustainability inertia and greenwashing, however, with a clear brand strategy, implementation and follow-through your brand can earn the attention of the missing 40% and get ahead. Move towards sustainability in a genuine way and attract consumers regardless of their commitment to sustainability by building factors like transparency, maker well-being, eco-leadership and outreach into the core identity of your brand while balancing price, quality and functional benefits – the perfect package for anyone on the sustainability spectrum.

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