Recently, I had an opportunity to participate in “Meaningful Marketing Talks” hosted by BAM. This engaging event was dedicated to “New Humanity Codes”, where marketers tried to define and improve how businesses connect and engage with the environment and customers. These codes of the “New Humanity” were presented by 5 BAM Think Tanks: Sustainability, Well-being, Inclusion and Diversity, Information and communication technologies (MarTech) and Ethics.
My keynote was focused on sustainability, and specifically on climate & environment. As an insights consultant, I often interview consumers about their views on sustainability. This time, I had the chance to hear from the companies themselves. I interviewed ten companies on how customers influence their sustainability agenda and the difficulties they face implementing it. I’ve learned that businesses can be segmented based on where they are in their sustainability journey, but ultimately, all organizations face the same challenges.
Big differences in where a company sits in the sustainability journey
From my conversations with ten companies across different industries (B2C & B2B, Belgian & international, production companies, services companies, and reseller companies), I've noticed that sustainability is not a priority for all companies. In fact, I could place them along a Cost-Value axis, from 'No priority yet' to 'Philosophy driven', with multiple steps in between. Companies on the left side of the axis, the Cost-side, treat sustainable compliance as a cost, mostly driven by a need to comply with government regulations. Companies on the right side of the axis, the Value-side, tend to go beyond what is required by legislation. This is the case for marketing-driven and philosophy-driven companies, for which sustainable practices represent opportunities to create more value.
All parties play a role in saving the world
Where companies sit on the Cost-Value axis depends greatly on the kinds of interactions that they have, with company-customer interaction only forming one part of the picture. Indeed, everyone plays a role in saving the world. From my interviews, it became very quickly evident that governments and their regulations play a crucial role in driving sustainable choices by companies. European regulations, as well as international guidelines and standards, can impact the entire value chain of a business, even if it's a non-European company. Next to that, companies themselves impact other companies, and legislation makes the competition fairer between companies, ensuring that all businesses have the same standards to follow. Also, investors and shareholders play an important role, with more and more investors preferring to invest in sustainable companies. Finally, perhaps surprisingly, employees can also be a driving force behind sustainability initiatives.
When it comes to consumers, it's important to note that the role of the customer in influencing companies varies depending on the company's sector, type of product or service, and specific circumstances. Some companies aren’t impacted by customers’ attitudes towards sustainability, while others may be heavily influenced by the general desire of consumers to make good decisions.
All of these interactions, and their relative importance to different companies in different sectors, influence where a company sits in their sustainability journey. Despite these significant differences, I identified some common themes across my interviews.
The 5 common themes are as follows:
- It's not about gaining anymore; it's about not losing. Today, sustainability is a hygiene factor instead of a differentiator. Even the least advanced companies on their sustainability journey know that to compete, they must be sustainable.
- Money counts for everyone: there's friction between sustainability and affordability. This is not only the case for the customers but also for the companies.
- Too little communication: companies need to communicate more about their sustainability efforts. Having a few lines on their website isn't sufficient.
- Lack of clarity: there are so many different kinds of labels, and nobody knows what anything means anymore. This allows greenwashing to reign free or companies to use their own labels. Meanwhile, consumers are becoming more sensitive to greenwashing and are demanding more transparency and accountability from companies, creating a sustainability trust gap. This trust gap can have an impact on a company's brand reputation and overall success.
- The truth is already obsolete: frequent changes in regulation make it very hard for companies to plan ahead or communicate their sustainability practices to consumers.
Businesses and customers are in this together
Sustainability is a tricky and ever-changing topic that presents challenges for companies. My research suggests that companies should carefully assess their current position in their sustainability journey and their desired destination. To succeed with a sustainable strategy, companies need to smartly navigate sustainability and affordability, be bold in surpassing existing regulations, and take small steps towards more sustainability whenever possible.
Effective communication is crucial as well. Companies must clearly and openly communicate their unique selling points and sustainability efforts in their marketing communications. They should also use reliable labels and standards that consumers can trust for clarity. Additionally, companies can leverage social media and QR codes to enhance transparency and engage consumers in sustainable choices.
By integrating sustainable practices into their strategies and communicating transparently with consumers, companies can create value and establish trust with customers who increasingly prioritize sustainable products and services. Sustainability is a collective effort involving companies, governments, customers, and stakeholders. Despite the challenges, embracing sustainability is a necessity.
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