A majority of large companies now produce sustainability reports. In fact, 81% of S&P 500 companies published such documents in 2015, up from just 20% in 2011. Many businesses both large and small are making serious strides towards sustainability. But do such efforts resonate with shoppers and inform their behavior in a way that supports sustainability? Customer engagement is shaping up as a key new priority for corporate sustainability reporting.
Take the case of the British retailer, Marks & Spencer. Its accomplishments towards sustainability include zero net carbon emissions for four straight years and zero waste to landfill, with all electricity for its UK and Ireland retail locations generated from renewable sources. Now, the chain is considering how to better engage shoppers and employees.
"To become a truly sustainable business we need to take our 32 million customers and 83,000 colleagues with us on the journey,” Mike Barry, director of sustainable business, stated recently to BusinessGreen. “It can't be something that is just done behind the scenes. They want big business to do the heavy lifting, but they want to get involved in areas where M&S can make a difference in their own lives, so things like charity work, working in the local community and connecting people with volunteering.”
One notable campaign to communicate sustainability to customers was that of Levi’s. Several years ago it sought to reduce water consumption in its manufacturing process. While it posted a water usage reduction of 96%, it came to understand that the production of new pair of jeans translated into only 7% of the water used during the product’s lifetime, and so it appealed to customers to wash their jeans less frequently.
The language of its campaign (‘Don’t wash the stories out of your Levi’s jeans’) resonated with audiences, and was supported by appropriate care instructions (caretag for the planet) on each new pair of jeans. Additional support for the campaign came company leadership. The CEO did not wash his jeans for a year.
So how can we connect more effectively with shoppers? Here are some ideas:
Pay attention to language. The complexity and jargon of sustainability reporting can leave customers confused and suspicious. As in the case of Levi’s, the choice of language is critical in forging a bond with shoppers. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.”
Support outreach and volunteerism. Increasingly, companies such as M&S are supporting volunteer work by their employees. While this can be a very effective way to demonstrate corporate commitment, remember, the community values the tangible results of such efforts, not the amount of volunteer hours you report.
“How you talk about your corporate responsibility program, both to your employees and your customers, is critical,” Ryan Scott wrote recently in Forbes. “The best way to communicate about your efforts is by focusing your program around real community impact – not just numbers.” One example of how to communicate such impact, Unilever celebrates the successes of volunteers through its Unilever’s Heroes initiative.
Integrate sustainability into your brand Companies are now using marketing communications best practices to share with shoppers their sustainability stories. They are employing vehicles such as social media campaigns, videos, product packaging messages, point of sale information, and other creative means to connect with customers. Heineken, for example, has introduced online games to help communicate its sustainability efforts to its target audience. And transparency is increasingly important in terms of winning customer trust and in clarifying where further improvements are needed.
Companies are looking to integrate sustainability into their overall brand rather than to simply offer an “eco” version of their product or to have an isolated sustainable products section in the supermarket. Or a standalone sustainability report. Like your overall brand message, your sustainability story should be understandable and compelling. Most importantly, it should be a story in which customers feel included, and in which they feel they are playing a positive role.