CTPerspectives: Marketing Sustainability – A meaningful differentiator, or message clutter?

Earth Day got us thinking about how current generations have become so averse to greenwashing, because words like ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are subjective and give the average consumer the impression that a brand is trying to sound more sustainable than it actually is. If a brand is going to take a stance on sustainability, consumers, particularly younger generations, want to see that they’re walking the walk, that sustainability is ingrained in its DNA and not just a marketing ploy.

With that in mind, we asked CTPers what they think about marketing tactics focused on sustainability. Have words like ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ become meaningless? Should brands who can’t truly back up claims of sustainable business practices avoid messaging around sustainability altogether? And lastly, are there brands that are doing sustainability ‘right’ in terms of brand strategy? 

As consumers, our understanding of sustainability has really grown over the past several years, and we’re no longer satisfied with green packaging and recyclable materials. We want to see big changes because we know the impact large corporations can have on climate change if they make seemingly small steps forward. Dunkin got rid of styrofoam cups, Starbucks got rid of straws, and even in my own town, plastic bags have gone extinct and a small fee is charged for a paper one. I think that any brand willing to make changes like the ones mentioned above, should be commended for doing so. But if a brand is going to develop a platform on sustainability, its work needs to go beyond one initiative. That’s expected – and table stakes, quite frankly. A good example of a brand that has earned its right to market sustainability is Allbirds, which takes actionable steps in every step of the process to reduce its carbon footprint. So I would say to brands – go ahead and recycle, eliminate single-use plastics etc. (and thank you for that!), but if you’re not willing to do more, give yourself a quiet pat on the back and keep it out of your marketing plan. – Lizzie Morrill, Senior Brand Manager 

At the end of the day, a brand can put almost anything it wants on its packaging by using legal loopholes and vague terminology. But what really matters goes beyond what the brand says about itself. So they use recycled materials in their packaging? Great. Do they recycle their own manufacturing waste? Do they purchase sustainable office supplies and recycle their office waste? Do they provide flex time to employees who volunteer for environmental causes? You can’t proclaim to be concerned about the environment while simultaneously ignoring the environmental impact of your entire business beyond the product itself. 

Two diametrically opposed examples from the same brand: REI. CSR and sustainability is a huge facet of REI’s brand platform. There is an entire section of its site dedicated to stewardship, detailing all the ways REI is caring for the environment throughout its business . This same brand just introduced a partnership with Ford, makers of some of the world’s most un-eco-friendly products, to promote the new Ford Bronco. It’s a pretty tone-deaf move for a company so advanced in their CSR programs and communications. That it comes just in time for Earth Day is not playing well… – Steve Angel, SVP Director of Strategy

A majority of companies that claim to be green or eco-friendly aren’t being entirely truthful in order to make consumers feel better about buying their products. Several coffee chains and tons of makeup companies claim to be eco-conscious but do nothing to try and make their packaging recyclable. An educated consumer has already done their research and knows which companies are truthful in these claims, and they will research a new company before they make a purchase. Unless your company really walks the walk, don’t claim to be green. 

Something like a carbon label (which is like a nutrition label for sustainability), with a real independent investigative board behind it, might level the playing field between the real green companies and the fake green companies. And make it easier for the average consumers to make eco-conscious choices while shopping without having to research beforehand. 

Patagonia is the most sustainable company I can think of. The company invests 1% of its annual profits to good causes, often green. Patagonia backs environmental protection projects,  openly speaks about products it no longer supports and why, and s trying to cut down on the use of fleece and synthetic materials in its products. The company also has programs for its consumers to repair, donate and recycle Patagonia purchases (the “don’t buy this jacket” campaign), and is committed to removing high-profit products if they’re no longer sustainable to produce. –  Allison Spitaels, Senior Designer

A brand using buzz words like “green” or “eco-friendly” in its marketing without backing up its claim is the same as clinging to  “breakthrough” and “innovative.” Enough already! With that said, if you’re a brand that truly walks to talk when it comes to sustainability, I say message the HELL out of that! It’s a huge plus and a major tipping point for consumers, but you have to show the proof in the pudding. It’s not enough to just say it. You need to explain it. Show the impact of your brand’s choices and efforts. – Nikki Peters, Account Director

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