Marketing without sustainability
As much as those of us who work in sustainability would love to believe clients and customers are looking for green, buying green and living green, truth is, their top three priorities are still high quality, low price and great service. Therein lays one of today’s greatest challenges for organizations seeking to operate more sustainably while effectively marketing more globally conscious products and services.
At the end of the day, businesses and business leaders are still driven by lower costs and revenue growth. Every sustainability initiative must serve those ends or it becomes another philanthropic activity. Yet most organizations, even those on the leading edge, struggle with how to drive and message sustainability, both internally and externally. It's no wonder most consumers are confused about who the leaders are in the sustainability arena.
A recently released study conducted by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM, 2012), measuring the difference between consumer perceptions on sustainability and organizational realities for 100 top global brands, brings this disconnect into sharp relief. While there has been a dramatic increase in and commitment to corporate sustainability, perception about sustainability leadership has more to do with successful communication strategies than actual efforts.
Out of 100 companies surveyed, twelve in the top tier of sustainability leadership for 2011 saw significant declines in perceived stewardship despite their increased efforts for greater sustainability. And these slippages occurred at companies we have come to expect at the “greening” forefront including 3M, Colgate-Palmolive, Nokia, IBM, Walt Disney, and Cisco.
At the same time, a number of well-known companies moved up into sustainability leadership positions despite their unchanged environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance. Apple is perhaps one of the best-known companies on this list – a massively successful, global brand, delivering the newest and coolest consumer technology – and yet it remains largely un-penalized by the marketplace for its consistently low public rankings in sustainability.
Why is marketing sustainability so difficult to distinguish from actual sustainability successes?
First, measuring sustainable business practices is relatively new to the business world. Second, no single standard for measurement, certification and reporting has been adopted across industry sectors. Third, organizations often focus on sustainability as a siloed project or program and not as a strategic imperative.
So where do organizations go to find both operational and marketing successes when seeking greater community engagement, higher give-back and increased responsibility in their actions?