Marketing and Comms
"With Great Power ...":
How to Give Consumers Formal Responsibility for Addressing Sustainability

The Internet and by extension social media have made it possible for consumers to obtain information easily and to voice their opinions about products, companies, and people. Consumers also have the power to speak directly to product and service providers in a way that was previously unheard of. It was Voltaire that said, “With great power comes great responsibility” — with that power what is the consumer’s great responsibility?

A recent LinkedIn article by Colin Shaw titled “15 Statistics That Should Change The Business World — But Haven't” pointed out the importance of customer service to the success of businesses. He ended by asking why companies continue to behave as if the customer experience doesn’t matter. Well, let’s examine that question a bit more critically.

My wise grandmother once told me that people treat you in the manner that you allow them to treat you. So why do companies continue to treat customers as if they don’t have tremendous power? My theory is that the mass of consumers are so keen on paying the lowest possible price that they are sending a message to the marketplace that they may not fully understand the implications of. Low prices are nice. After all, who doesn’t like a great bargain? But when you pay the lowest possible price for something the seller will make up that profit in some way. In retail it means lower-paid store clerks who may not feel that they get paid enough to fawn all over you as if this was the Gilded Age. From a manufacturer’s point of view, it means cheaper, more environmentally damaging input materials and cheap labor.

So now we get to the consumer responsibility part and why consumers should be a part of every sustainability conversation. Up to this point it doesn’t seem that consumers have been involved in any meaningful way. Companies plead their cases to consumers and other stakeholders outlining what they are doing and how they’re changing the world. But what are consumers formally adding to the conversation? Where are the consumer conferences and meetings in which sustainability is discussed in an actionable way? I’m sure there are some examples and we need to highlight those.

One way to get consumers involved in the discussion is to ask questions in a Socratic, pragmatic, and matter-of-fact way about something as basic as what it means to focus solely on price in buying decisions. We have to start connecting the dots in a real way between price, real costs and sustainability, and we have to defuse any defensiveness because it is what it is. Of course we realize that many people have little choice and must focus on price. But for many other people this is not the case. We must understand the plight of those who are forced to choose lowest-priced goods while challenging people to elevate their thinking.

How else can we get consumers more involved in the conversation and give them more formal responsibility in addressing sustainability? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Make sure that people understand what sustainability means. If industry and government don’t agree on the definition then you can’t possibly expect everyday consumers to really grasp it. Brands that want to be more sustainable should explain in their marketing communications how efforts such as using post-consumer recycled packaging actually make a difference. The benefits of sustainable practices are often lofty and not meaningful to the individual consumer. Bring it down to where people can see how it really makes a difference in their lives.
  2. Get companies to ask their customers which aspects of sustainability really matter to them. Seriously addressing those concerns gives companies a chance to prioritize their efforts and have a real impact among a major group of stakeholders. Of course, businesses could and should focus on more than just consumers' areas of concern. However, attacking the issues that are the most significant to customers shows that you are trying to align your values to theirs.
  3. Get customers to share sustainability stories and ways in which they can make or have made a difference in their own lives and communities. Determine creative ways to recognize and reward their efforts. This idea of shared stories provides a way for companies not only to connect in a meaningful way with consumers but allows consumers to learn from each other. It’s a subtle form of positive peer pressure and people like awards and recognition.

Bringing customers into the discussion in a major way and giving them opportunities to contribute to the solution may actually move the needle a bit. So let’s add a few more chairs to the table. There’s plenty of room.

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