It seems like every week now a handful of companies announce new sustainable initiatives. This month alone, Zara announced it will “achieve” sustainable fashion by 2025, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo left the Plastics Industry Association, Dasani announced plastic-free water distribution, Gap signed a deal to use renewable energy, Google promised to make sustainability a centerpiece of its hardware business, and the announcements just keep coming. Corporate Social Responsibility is clearly trending.
What’s going on?
When we started in this field almost 20 years ago, sustainability and social impact was a novelty. At the time, green options indicated higher costs and lower shareholder value. Of course, the outliers existed, including many of our clients who saw the goodwill a sustainability program could generate. At the time, customers and companies alike assumed sustainability meant higher prices. Subsequently, programs were only adopted when they met both criteria for sustainable and cost reducing.
But now, we’re living in a cultural shift where customers are not only more likely to engage with a company if they have a shared ideology, but they are often more willing to spend more on a product if it meets their values-based criteria. And now, with social media, websites, and a catalog of all news stories ever at our fingertips, customers are closer to companies than ever before. They can research every good or bad story, and many of them do. With this level of research at our fingertips, making a “more ethical” choice is easier than ever before.
Companies are clearly listening, making major investments into sustainable programs and impact marketing campaigns. But how much represents real change and how much is greenwashing? Often we see a company make a demanded shift to an alternative that is equally problematic but sounds nicer. This includes bioplastics which generally can’t be recycled or composted, or McDonalds UK adopting a paper straw that is not recyclable or compostable, or fast fashion companies producing millions of products destined for a landfill or incinerator but calling it “green” because of a more acceptable textile choice.
Customers are smart, and they know when companies make real change versus pandering to the masses. As this shift toward Corporate Social Responsibility continues, customers are learning to differentiate which announcements are meaningful and which are greenwashing. We regularly challenge our clients to ensure their programs are material, ensuring their customers feel confident in their choice. What it comes down to is, don’t make an announcement to fit in. Instead, make sure you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons!