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Walking the Talk
How to Pursue Sustainability During COVID-19:
A Tactical Guide for Brand Professionals

This global pandemic is critical and companies should dedicate every resource to helping their customers get through it, but in the spirit of protecting ourselves from one existential threat, we shouldn’t let another one go completely unnoticed.

The COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging the globe, and businesses everywhere are trying to cope and stay afloat, or meet demand and stay ahead. We have witnessed brands pause reusable cup pilots in light of health concerns or delay their sustainability budget allocations in an uncertain environment. This pandemic is critical and companies should dedicate every resource to helping their customers get through it, but in the spirit of protecting ourselves from one existential threat, we shouldn’t let another one go completely unnoticed. Here is a quick tactical guide that makes the case for why and how your brand can and should still pursue sustainability under COVID-19. 

1. Maintain trust and brand consistency, because your customers need you. 

Consumers worldwide are watching companies closely. This is a crucial time for businesses to take up social responsibility. As COVID impacts the lives of billions, consumers are looking to businesses for support. Any initiative at this point, or lack of it, is going to sway their perception of your brand and impact their loyalty to you for a considerable period of time. According to a poll conducted on a recent Association of National Advertisers webinar, 20 percent of brand marketers have increased CSR spending as a response to the epidemic. To volunteer to help tackle it is a step in the right direction, but to maintain your sustainable values through these times of distress builds a sense of consistency that’s rare to find

When the world was hit with SARS, 9/11 or similar black swan events, we saw consumers seek comfort from the businesses they believed in. During critical times like this, when the whole world is pitching in to heal from a health crisis, it’s important to conduct listening exercises and address customer concerns. The aftermath of dark global events is kind to businesses that listen to customers and make moves to put their worries to rest — investing in long-term sustainability initiatives could be a solution to reassure them of a comfortable future. 

2. You may have time to spare — use it to strategize sustainability.

With a lull in sales and business development, you might not be hustling as much to maintain your day-to-day processes and provide your products/services in the large batches that are generally demanded. The effort and time that is no longer being used to conduct your daily tasks can now be invested in developing strategies to help the business thrive in new market conditions. Every brand has broader, grander plans around sustainability that tend to stay on the backburner because you’re occupied with more pressing day-to-day business concerns — now is your chance to work your way to these sky-is-the-limit goals. 

During the 2008 recession, most businesses were brainstorming ways to increase consumer spending — how could they make their brand important enough to drive purchases in a time of financial scarcity? Instead of trying to change this fresh, budget-focused consumer mindset, many with foresight used the time to mold their product to suit that particular mindset. Groupon, for example, launched its business to offer great deals for consumers that want value for their money. They found a way to sell the idea of buying less — an idea that dictated consumers’ purchase choices at the time. It all boils down to taking the time out to really understand and revel in what the consumers want — and with the current business stagnancy, you have the bandwidth to do just that. 

3. ‘Green’ your e-commerce experience, because consumers are shopping online.

With people actively avoiding human interaction, e-commerce sales are going through the roof. Online sales have increased 52 percent compared to the same time last year, and the number of online shoppers has increased 8.8 percent since the pandemic began. Take the hint — adopt sustainability initiatives that integrate well with your digital presence and engage with customers on email, social media, web and e-commerce. Share sustainability journeys, clean living tips, and provide them a climate-friendly user experience while shopping with you. 

Image credit: rePurpose Global

For example, enable an opt-in tick-box at your point of checkout that enables your customers to contribute to a sustainable cause, thereby creating a sustainable shopping experience without the business incurring a cent. rePurpose Global offers the Everyday Plastic Neutral Program that easily integrates an opt-in box and gives customers an option to offset the plastic content in their orders for less than $1. Moms Co, an online marketplace for mom and baby care products, enabled this opt-in with rePurpose and created a brand experience that better connects with their customers’ concern for safety and clean living. Trice, a grocery delivery service, also successfully adopted this feature: 7 out of 10 customers have opted in to pay and compensate for the plastic in their purchases since launch. This shows that e-commerce can truly unite your customers’ values with your sustainability ethos.

Image credit: rePurpose Global

Emails and newsletters are another tried and tested way of engaging with your audience. Lyft uses its email receipts to communicate its sustainability mission — the company offsets the carbon emissions of every ride. By following each ride receipt with the “This and every ride is carbon neutral” section, Lyft connected its carbon neutrality pledge to each user journey and created a trusted brand image in the customer’s mind — giving it the upper hand over competitors such as Uber, criticized for business models enabling large-scale pollution. 

4. Set yourself apart for the inevitable rebound. Now’s the time. 

When the world emerges out of this crisis, consumers will have a renewed interest in protecting humanity against existential risks such as climate change and they will seek leadership in that fight from companies. This is a crucial time for you to anchor your business around environmental responsibility and set yourself apart from competitors. Business investments in environmental protection have been growing steadily for years — it’s proven to be profitable, but isn’t widespread yet to be mainstream (a perfect sweet spot). Adopting sustainable practices during a time when most consumers are watching could help establish you as an industry pioneer and a responsible brand. 

For example, adidas and Nike continue to battle it out in sportswear for first place in the minds of their consumers. A few years ago, adidas launched its collaboration with Parley for the Oceans on shoes that use ocean plastic, and Nike followed recently with an eerily similar campaign. The not-so-coincidental similarities did not go unnoticed. Despite being a smaller brand, why is adidas leading the way in public perception? Because it acted quickly during this crucial time when ocean plastics are the talk of the town, and it created a bigger splash. 

5. Changing supply chains for COVID-19? Consider climate risks while you are at it.

Your business is already taking measures to work your way around COVID — minimizing human contact, disinfecting equipment, making changes to protect and risk-proof your supply chain. While you are conducting a comprehensive risk analysis of your supply chain, you can review both climate-related and health-related risks at the same time. Use this time to make necessary changes so your business is better protected in the future.

Conduct data audits, use visualization, and do some scenario planning to identify immediate issues you might be facing. Bad or missing data is a possible roadblock that could be solved by Sourcemap — which provides professional assistance on creating transparent supply chains to recover from your COVID-19 hit. You can also work with rePurpose Global to source ethically recycled Honest Plastic from our Global Impact Network of vetted recycling social enterprises across seven countries and three continents.  

6. Engage with online sustainability resources while you work from home. 

Maybe your business has never considered sustainability, so this is all very new to you. With the slowdown, you can start now by understanding it better and charting out a strategy that works for your business. Here are some resources to get you started: 

Webinars:

  1. What is the Circular Economy?: What exactly is a circular economy? How do you do it? What does it mean to businesses and governments? Why does it matter?

  2. Plastic Neutrality for Businesses: rePurpose Global is organizing three webinars that introduce the Plastic Neutral Certification to food & beverage companies, personal care brands, and organic product brands respectively. As the world's first Plastic Credit Platform, rePurpose makes climate action delightfully simple for companies of all sizes by helping them remove and recycle as much ocean-bound plastic waste as they produce. 

  3. An Introduction to Plastic Offsets: Plastic offsets are an innovative way to compensate for your company’s plastic packaging waste. In partnership with the Pet Sustainability Coalition, this webinar dives deeper into how it works, how it can empower consumer brands and what it means for the world.

Sustainable business newsletters: 

  1. Circular Pulse: Bi-weekly curated content breaking down the hottest trends in sustainability for conscious businesses globally. 

  2. Sustainable Brands: Newsletters highlighting companies adopting smarter, more sustainable business strategies and practices.

Learning hubs: 

  1. Ellen Macarthur Foundation Circular Economy Learning Hub: Expand your understanding of a circular economy and learn how the concept can be applied to different parts of your business.

  2. Rubicon Global blog: The waste-management giant helps cities and businesses uncover smart, sustainable, data-driven waste and recycling solutions.

  3. SOLVE blog by MIT: Focuses on social entrepreneurship and innovations driving a circular economy.

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