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Behavior Change
How Brands and Retailers Can Collaborate to Activate Sustainability, Drive Growth

Why are so few brands and retailers partnering to communicate their sustainability attributes at the moment of truth — when shoppers are in the right mindset to buy? A new guidebook offers 10 guiding principles and many inspirational examples to help guide brands and retailers through the process.

Over the past several years, many large brand companies and retailers have announced ambitious ESG goals. Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and many more have committed that 100 percent of their packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. CVS has committed to $1.5 billion in social impact investments to build healthier communities by 2030. Walmart has committed to zero emissions across global operations, without offsets, by 2040.

We also know that shoppers have elevated expectations for companies: 79 percent of US consumers claim they would switch brands for a more sustainable option (Brands for Good/Harris Poll, 2020). And yet, a large intention-action gap remains: There is a 20-point gap between stated importance and action taken when it comes to being energy smart, and a 15-point gap around choosing more sustainable products (Brands for Good/Harris Poll, 2020).

So, why is it that so few brands and retailers are partnering to communicate their commitments, achievements, and benefits right at the moment of truth — and close the intention-action gap when the shopper is on a mission and in the right mindset to buy?

We think it’s because there isn’t a well-worn path or process that currently exists. Today, retailers often look to brands to bring them ideas on how to activate sustainability; brands, meanwhile, often feel that retailers won’t make room for sustainability activations. And while sustainability is discussed regularly at annual Top-to-Top meetings, it’s often not the focus of the recurring meetings between sales teams and buyers — so, both brand marketing and retail sustainability teams need to consciously invest in a strategy and execution plan to make this happen. The good news is that Grounded World and Sustainable Brands™ have published a guidebook that can help: Retail Activation for Good.

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In conjunction with SB Brands for Good partners (both leading consumer brands and retailers), we compiled a set of 10 guiding principles and highlighted many inspirational examples to help guide brands and retailers through the process. And if you’re just kicking off your annual brand-planning process, this is the perfect time to dig in.


By focusing on the Nine Most Impactful Sustainable Behaviors, brands and retailers can drive a competitive advantage while also helping shoppers make purchase decisions that benefit our planet and society, and help protect and preserve our natural resources.

Image credit: Brands for Good

Once you’ve locked into the right behavior, addressing the intention-action gap in the retail environment is a great place to start. It is the moment that matters — when shoppers are deciding what to click on, pick up, and add to their carts. If more brands and retailers can translate their ESG commitments into partnerships that drive commercial innovation and better shopping experiences, they will not only play their part in closing the intention-action gap while driving sustainable consumer behavior change; they will also deliver better margins and customer loyalty.

When planning your retail activation, make sure you connect your sustainability initiative back to the category need state or brand attribute that drives purchase intent. Many brands have deep and wide sustainability platforms — from net-zero carbon emissions, to reducing waste, to supporting diversity equity & inclusion. For maximum impact, the platform should resonate with consumers AND connect back to the product/category drivers.

  • A good example is Tide’s 2021 #TurntoCold campaign. Through company research, Tide discovered that switching from hot to cold water when doing laundry can reduce energy usage by up to 90 percent, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the category drivers for laundry center more around clean clothes at a good value. So, Tide translated the energy savings into financial savings for each household — up to $150 per year. And the brand partnered with the NFL as a torture test for laundry, showing that even the dirtiest linebacker uniform gets clean when washed with Tide on cold. Tide had displays featuring the $150 savings callout through retail stores; and partnered with Walmart to develop an interactive landing page for shoppers that walked them through all the ways they could save money and energy, and still get their clothes clean, using Tide.

Image courtesy of Walmart

When executing your retail activation, let your values speak louder than price. Shoppers will often overlook the price of something when the perceived value aligns with their own values. Communicating the benefits of, or purpose behind, a brand or product in a way that is consistent, authentic and meaningful to the shopper will allow any perceived price barrier to become less of an issue.

  • A great example of this is Sephora’s diversity, equity and inclusion platform, Sephora Stands — which exists to encourage bold choices in beauty, and in life. A whole range of programs has been designed to invite people to unite to preserve the planet, support communities, and celebrate the beauty in each of us — all focused at retail. Sephora has also taken the 15 Percent Pledge to dedicate at least 15 percent of its shelf space to Black-owned companies. The company also commissioned the first ever large-scale study on racial bias in retail today. Based on this research, an action plan is being implemented, aimed at mitigating racially driven bias and negative experiences in the retail environment. The company’s giving strategy combines Sephora-funded donations with a deeper collaboration with nonprofits. Each month, key nonprofits are featured across marketing channels, building awareness for their efforts to drive equity and inclusion, and inviting shoppers to join in. Shoppers may then contribute by redeeming their Beauty Insider points as a donation; more than 150 million points have been redeemed as donations since this program’s launch in 2020.

We have a lot of work to do — as businesses and citizens — to help drive positive change for society and for the planet. Many organizations are stepping forward with commitments, which is a great start. Collaborations will be the next phase, joining forces to have a bigger impact. And if you are a brand or retail leader, thinking about collaborations that help drive positive change and accelerate growth is imperative. Consider starting with the Retail Activation for Good guidebook; or get in touch with Grounded World for a free, 45-minute overview of the program.