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Stakeholder Trends and Insights
Tree-Falling-in-a-Forest Sustainability:
Can (or Should) We Get It to Make a Sound?

Earlier this year, the Des Moines Water Works announced plans to sue three Iowa counties over high concentrations of nitrates from agricultural runoff. At the same time, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued its biennial report on the state of the Chesapeake, giving it a D+ and highlighting phosphorus runoff from agriculture operations. And then there was the city of Toledo shutting down the water supply in the summer of 2014 due to a harmful algal bloom that may have been caused, in part, by runoff from over-fertilized fields.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that water quality impacts of the food and ag supply chain are on consumers’ radars.

But they’re not.

The United Soybean Board conducted a survey of adults in four major watersheds (Chesapeake, Missouri, Upper and Lower Mississippi) in late 2014 and found that water quality issues weren’t top of mind. In each watershed, at least 80 percent of adults had an overall positive view of farming and water quality in their state.

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This disconnect poses a conundrum for brands that utilize the agricultural supply chain in the U.S. The potential risk to their supply chain is real — increased regulations, disruption of supply, higher prices — it’s a clarion call to get involved. But while brand engagement with other environmental or human welfare issues in the supply chain has been applauded by consumers, what’s a brand to do when engaging in an issue will be met with, well, crickets?

History is of limited help here. Case studies of sectors that were regulated in relative obscurity, and that had major ramifications on the supply chain, are hard to find. It’s typically public outcry or broad awareness that accelerates regulations in the first place.

Arguments can be made that regulatory changes related to meat in the UK — changes that didn’t capture consumer attention — led to new sourcing patterns that triggered the 2013 horsemeat scandal. That may be as close as we get to a history lesson of how this whole food and agriculture/water quality scenario could play out. Not too many best practices to glean there.

Textbook marketing and PR would suggest the old educate-them-about-a-problem-they-don’t-know-they-have approach. That works really well when the problem is chronic ear twitching and Company X has a miracle pill to cure it. That doesn’t work so well when the problem (agriculture and water quality) has no miracle cure.

But if history and textbooks can’t shed much insight, there are still viable strategies to be found by applying creativity and persistence to the problem. Here are a few ideas that might work for companies engaging a sustainability issue that has minimal brand upside:

Think big. Really big. Necessity is the mother of invention. Constraints drive innovation. True. But there is an additional benefit when consumers aren’t paying close attention. We let our hair down when no one’s watching. We sing louder in our shower at home than we do at the gym. Having no consumers watching your every move means greater freedom to try bigger innovations without risking collateral damage to brand perception. One of those bigger innovations may be a huge value driver for a brand.

Be first out of the gate. It’s true that some supply chain issues are so formidable that solving them requires a multi-stakeholder approach. That doesn’t preclude getting a head start, however. Even if the problem will eventually be addressed by consortiums or coalitions, companies can work ahead to position themselves as thought leaders before the inaugural meetings. The general public may in time have serious concerns about a particular issue that went unnoticed before, and brands that have taken the initiative to build street cred will be in a better position to generate positive sentiment among consumers. Even if the public never comes around to caring, there are still tangible benefits related to attracting and retaining talent because of visionary leadership on environmental and social issues.

Don’t force customers to come along. Seriously, don’t. Especially when the destination seems years away, there will be all kinds of pressure to bring consumers along on the journey, to let them see how a brand is engaging with an issue that really matters even if no one realizes it. There’s an obscure comedy sketch from How to Irritate People with John Cleese as an airplane pilot, going on the intercom in mid-flight to assure passengers that the wings are not on fire. Naturally, panic ensues. It’s 50/50 whether consumers will see your proactive approach as commendable or suspicious — after all, you just flagged a problem they didn’t know you had. Trust that there’s value in securing a sustainable supply chain even if there’s no audience to applaud. The applause will come. You may just have to wait for it.

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