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Beyond paper versus plastic

shutterstock_1250226013e-360x240Have you ever asked yourself, “How much better is a paper shopping bag versus a plastic one?” or, “Which would be better for the environment?”

How do consumers evaluate sustainability in a world full of disposable conveniences? We know consumers want to live more sustainable and mindful lives. In fact, 81% of consumers feel strongly that retailers and manufacturers should help improve the environment by implementing programs to this effect. So it makes sense that consumers are drawn to corporate programs that make them feel better about lightening that load.

Keep in mind, consumers are becoming more sophisticated in their ability to discern between true commitment to sustainability and action taken just for show. And they’re not afraid to call out that authenticity—or lack of—on social media, in conversations with friends, or in any other channel. This has made some retailers and manufacturers hesitant, afraid of consumer backlash for well-intentioned efforts. Others are still sustainability skeptics; however, there is a wealth of evidence that says sustainability can boost the bottom line. In fact, when sustainability initiatives are integrated thoughtfully into the strategic plan, they can do everything from streamline the supply chain to unlock a new level of consumer loyalty.

One of the major challenges we hear companies express is that they know sustainability is important; however, they do not have a strategic plan for incorporating it into their store or brand. The word “sustainability” has increasingly become a catch-all term that can encompass everything from environmental conservation to employee relations, and much more. It can seem daunting to incorporate all of these factors into your overall business strategy, and figure out how it fits into your consumer marketing approach. So, whether you’re well on your way or just starting to incorporate sustainability into your strategy, here are five reasons to double down:

  1. Sustainability encourages a culture of innovation, pushing you to embrace new methods, technologies and ideas.
  2. Sustainability is a way to build authenticity, creating more transparency in your supply chain.
  3. Sustainability is a consumer-centric strategy. It requires you to understand the concerns your customers have, and how your store or brand can be a solution to help make their lives better.
  4. Sustainability drives greater efficiency; for example, many companies set commitments to move towards processes that reduce waste, requiring investment in research and development and sometimes the overhaul of supply chains. That upfront investment can pay off as your business benefits from a more efficient process and enhanced reputation.
  5. The positive effects of sustainability are good for us, and they make us feel good too. That goodwill can cut across your employees, consumers and other stakeholder groups.

To do it right, companies need to invest in truly understanding their consumers and embed sustainability into the foundation of their business. Authenticity comes through the end-to-end integration of sustainability into your processes and complete transparency with consumers. That means pushing beyond feel-good marketing to a fully integrated interdepartmental execution. It requires collaboration across many teams, from sourcing and sustainability, to store managers and marketing leaders. Winning requires sustainability be part of your short-and long-term strategic planning from start to finish.

Investing in sustainability is undoubtedly an individual journey for retailers that can be impacted by industry, geography, product portfolio, community commitments and other factors. Success comes when companies take a tailored approach consisting of multi-stakeholder engagement, cross-functional accountability and transparency at every step along the way. Given that it’s nearly impossible to predict the next consumer-driven sustainability trend, the key is to start taking steps in a sustainable direction and make consumers aware of the steps your company is taking.

Carman Allison is vice-president of consumer insights at Nielsen in Toronto. This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’September/October issue.