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Can we really engage consumers in sustainability?

This is undoubtedly one of the key questions for companies. The answer of course, is yes. And no.

The (non commercially self serving and credible) evidence so far, which I’ve been looking at for nearly 15 years, says people all say they take a keen interest, and that interest is growing, particularly in emerging markets.

TIME magazine

If only

But it also says that only a small proportion of most big company customers can, and do, take effective action.

Yes we know ethical brands (before they are bought up and their proposition diluted) have committed customers. But these firms are tiny. Their customer base has not proven scalable.

Customers of large companies struggle to live the values they espouse in research. This is not surprising. There are nearly 500 eco-labels out there, and consumers don’t understand the difference. Neither do I most of the time, and this is the field I work in.

The reward for companies that realists see, is of course, brand loyalty. But the desire to go further, and change behaviour is clear. Unilever and Boots will tell you that upwards of 60% of the carbon footprint of some products / overall carbon is in customer use. So they want to sell us lower carbon products, like dry shampoo.

These are good ideas, which will have limited take up in the market, like ethical brands themselves.

So for me, three fundamental questions still remain:

  1. Can brands REALLY engage consumers in sustainability?
  2. Can they – and do they have the right to – encourage ‘behaviour change’ (we don’t vote for them, except in purchasing)
  3. If so, can their efforts succeed, and are various pilot projects succeeding, and are they scalable?

I’ve not heard these questions answered to my satisfaction anywhere.

So we at Innovation Forum are bringing together some experts to discuss this in November in London.

We want to do the opposite of most cheerleading, PowerPoint waving conferences on this topic. Most feature over-caffeinated marketing people and sustainability executives talking about how good they are at this and how they can go a bit further. Most seem to paint things like cause related marketing or weak fluffy green PR, as consumer engagement.

We’re going to do something different. We’re going to take a hard nosed look at this area, and ask difficult questions to people who have not neccersarily unquestioning cheerleaders for a nascent area that in most cases, doesn’t yet work.

Regular readers of the blog will have picked up over the years that I am sceptical about positive answers to the above questions. At least as things stand. I hope that changes. I can see the Holy Grail that companies want to grab, those millions of customers to help them justify big sustainability investments which can then pay off much quicker.

The current state of play though, is well put by Benet Northcote, head of CSR at John Lewis Partnership.

We were discussing this the other day, and he noted that: “”Our view is that the customers do not shop to make an ethical choice, but by shopping with us they are confident that they have made an ethical choice”.

So here’s what we’re planning. It’s a work in progress. Come and join us if you can.

Sustainability: Why current consumer engagement fails – and how to fix it

Two days of debate about reality and solutions
Coin Street Conference Centre, London, 9-10 November 2015

It’s designed to be highly practical and PPT free.

Key themes of the event:

  • Working out the impacts of engagement in achieving corporate sustainability objectives and strategy
  • Measurement & ROI: Putting financial numbers on the ethical and sustainable market, What can be done to be more effective in demonstrating results and ROI and can it even be defined?
  • How to work better with key partners. Lessons learned from success and failure
  • What do consumers in high growth emerging market really think – and want – from companies on sustainability messaging and communications

Speakers confirmed so far (we’ll have 25+ at the event)

1. Richard Wright, behavioural science director, Unilever
2. Jake Backus, ex-Customer Sustainability Director at The Coca-Cola Company
3. Professor N. Craig Smith, chair in ethics and social responsibility, INSEAD
4. Timothy Devinney, university leadership chair & professor of international business, Leeds University Business School
5. BT, speaker name to be confirmed shortly
6. Karin Kreider, executive director, ISEAL
7. Giana M. Eckhardt, professor of marketing, Royal Holloway, University of London

To get involved, email or call her on + 44 (0) 20 3780 7432.

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1 Comment

  1. For me the ‘values-action’ gap is an opportunity, not a problem. It indicates latent demand to be more sustainable, but there are barriers to action which we need to understand. (Hence the ‘you don’t need to do anything’ example and ‘just trust us to do it for you’.) The problem or difficulty is HOW to engage consumers and shoppers and how this adds value to the brand, brand love and trust in a congruent and authentic way. There are some clear learnings of do’s and don’ts, but mostly, like Tobias, I am frustrated by the failure to move forwards more quickly, for which there are a number of reasons. One is the how brand managers do consumer research and ask consumers what to do (and its relative importance) -they don’t know!, and certainly for most consumers it is not the first priority whilst shopping. So foresight is required and to be ahead of consumer expectations. Another, is the fear of greenwash and the paralysis this induces in brand managers without the expertise to get it right (which they won’t unless it is ingrained in the ethos of the company). Also the correct role for Sustainability within the brand. It is not the main reason why people purchase the brand, except for eco brands. It is a secondary supporting attribute. I think that we should concentrate on how being more sustainable makes the shopper and consumer feel about themselves and the brand, and how their choice makes a positive contribution to their lives, the community, society and the environment. Small choices and actions DO make a difference (when aggregated) and brands have a role to play to articulate what a better, more active and sustainable lifestyle looks like, even if it has to be convenient (and affordable).