With higher-priced products, “sustainability” can still be seen as a privilege. It is time for brands to empower consumers by offering them accessible choices that are better for them, for the planet and for generations to come.
A recent headline caught my attention: "Research Shows Consumers Willing to Pay More for Environmentally Friendly Products." It stopped me in my tracks, because I wondered, why should consumers pay more? What has gotten us to this willingness?
The answer was clear: We’re at a point as a society where we know we can do better — we can build community, value time together, create a more equitable and peaceful future, and strengthen an economy that works for all.
The collective “we” is looking to brands that are leaders in offering ethical and clean products that are accessible and do no harm. Given the rise in product transparency initiatives, product labels, consumer advocates, changing consumer expectations across generations and more, the brands that are able to produce such straightforward, honest products and services will be the most successful.
Until the day comes that consumers are confident in choosing products from all shelves that do no harm, we — as consumers — must do our best to be our own advocates.
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Growing up, I took on this advocate role without even knowing it. I tinkered with DIY remedies, from pulling chamomile from the garden to make tea, to creating homemade lemon juice and sugar scrubs with my mom and sister. It felt good to know exactly what I was consuming and using.
Flash-forward 20 years, and now I am living in the age of wellness podcasts, product transparency documentation, the climate crisis and PR risks lingering on a social media post. The endeavor to understand the products that surround us in our environment has become more mainstream, but ever more complex.
There is an influx of information available to consumers about what is in the products they use and environmental impacts of product manufacturing. Yet, as someone who has been living and working in the sustainability sector for a number of years, it can still be challenging to decipher labels; to understand the impact of chemicals in products; and to feel certain that a higher-priced, sustainable product is legitimate in the face of false or exaggerated claims. It takes practice and commitment to be and stay in the know.
The reality is that for many people, product health and product sustainability are not top priorities — not because they don’t care; they simply don’t have the time to educate themselves on the matter, or the money to spend on more expensive products. In this sense, sustainability is still seen as a privilege. That is why it is time for brands to empower consumers by offering them accessible choices that are better for them on an individual level — as well for the planet, and for generations to come.
Five steps brands can take today to better empower their customers
1. Know your business inside and out
This is not a just within-your-walls type of knowledge; it’s knowing your business at a systemic and holistic level. You must understand the inputs and outputs that go into your business — including your supply chain’s upstream and downstream impacts; and consider and integrate externalities into your business practices and costs, all while benchmarking and setting goals that challenge your brand to be better.
A great place to begin to better understand your impacts and opportunities for improvement is with a materiality assessment. This can help your team understand what areas of the business have the greatest potential for decreasing negative impacts (greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions, water pollution, pay inequality, waste generation) and generating positive or regenerative impacts (GHG drawdown, closed-loop water systems, circular economy models). And a materiality assessment will help you systematically move through your business; figuring out top priority, high-impact areas of action.
2. Be honestly transparent with consumers
It is 2019, which means customers are increasingly savvy. I will always remember Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles, in which it pledged to share ‘the good, the bad and what it’s doing to make it better’ throughout its supply chain. This is a mantra I share with businesses as they work through the complex and sometimes uncomfortable realization that everything they do isn’t great, and their impacts — once realized — can feel like a pit in their stomach.
But that's okay — you have to begin somewhere.
Realize, celebrate and then enhance the good you are able to provide through your business. Acknowledge, plan to mitigate, and please do not hide the negative impacts. Best of all, share your moonshot goals of how you’re going to remedy the negative impacts for the benefit of all stakeholders. Share this information, and make it readily available for your customers, stakeholders and other businesses to utilize. It can be scary to put out information that doesn’t look great, but through this exercise you’ll build stakeholder trust and brand recognition, and — if you’re making improvements — earn admiration from peers and customers alike.
3. Actively inform — empower consumers with information to make a good decision
Making information available on your website is one thing. Actively informing — or taking the initiative to ensure your customers are completely informed at point of consideration and purchase — is another. Help consumers make better purchasing decisions and reward the companies (hopefully yours at this point) that have institutionally integrated sustainability into their business.
A key industry that comes to mind is cosmetics and personal care. You can’t scroll for 30 seconds on Instagram without coming across someone who has a “clean” line of personal care items. With the rise in knowledge of the impact of chemicals in products such as detergents, shampoo, conditioner, lotions, deodorants and more; there’s been a surge of products eager to fill demand for high-quality, clean products. To do this, such businesses are elevating their engagement with their prospective customers. They illustrate the negative health and environmental impacts of conventional products and make the case for why consumers should put their money behind cleaner and more responsible ones.
As consumer behavior continues to evolve and is further influenced by the values of millennials and Gen Z, brands that actively empower their customer base with information that contributes to a healthier environment, healthier communities and equitable prosperity will reap benefits starting today.
4. Know what you’re advocating for
We’ve come to a point in business where the line is blurred between isolated business operations and advocacy outside your walls. If you look inward, it is likely your business advocates for some cause already. While many actions can make a brand seem like an advocate, being a true change-maker and business influencer involves strategic and authentic planning.
Patagonia, with its environmental and social activism, again comes to mind. However, there are thousands of businesses across the world that take on some level of advocacy every day. For example, I think of all of the companies that have signed onto the We Are Still In campaign, the We Mean Business campaign and those that are part of 1% for the Planet; and even those that are transforming the world of business altogether as B Corps.
The future of our planet — and our lives — is on the line, which means business is on the line, too. By practicing advocacy, businesses can be part of the solution. It’s time to flip the historic narrative of big businesses lobbying for loopholes, to a narrative where those businesses support causes that will enhance life and the bottom line.
5. Act — and aim for the moon!
I love the term “moonshot,” because it implies a goal that is so far-fetched it is difficult to imagine coming to fruition. But given what we know in 2019, just about anything is possible. From the 1969 moon landing to Interface reaching its Mission Zero goal ahead of schedule, we have seen what’s possible when we have the power to drive innovation and the will to be responsible business leaders.
It’s no secret that sustainability challenges have already begun to impact businesses around the world. So, now is the time to set those ambitious goals that push you to improve. Integrating sustainability into your business will save you money, help you avoid costs, break into untapped market segments, and integrate efficiencies and opportunities you otherwise would have missed.
Viewing your business through a sustainability lens will help you attract, engage and retain great employees, help you better innovate new products or services and build resilience and foresight into your strategies. Without setting that moonshot goal, you won’t be able to create a sustainable future for all stakeholders, including your business. Once that goal is in place, create action steps to reach it and keep an open mind for any challenges you might face — that means it's time to reevaluate, and run through the materiality assessment again.
From growing up, sourcing my own garden ingredients for tinctures and teas; to now working as a sustainability professional, the world as we know it has and will continue to change. Generations now increasingly realize the severity of the climate crisis and the impact products have on our health, and increasingly understand the world in a systematic manner. There is an undeniable, under-the-surface bubbling to do better — to create a healthy, equitable and accessible marketplace of products that not only do no harm, but also do good.
We could all freeze in the headlights from apathy at the thought of this challenge to change and protect the planet and ourselves — or brands and consumers could develop a partnership of trust, to create the values we collectively want to see in our products and impacts.