PR key to spreading sustainability

The marketplace is changing. Although sustainability still struggles for clarity in many consumers' minds, business leaders and other influential audiences increasingly understand the term.

The marketplace is changing. Although sustainability still struggles for clarity in many consumers' minds, business leaders and other influential audiences increasingly understand the term.

Stark evidence came to light when some 140 people gathered at Goldman Sachs for the Rainforest Alliance's annual marketing conference in New York. There, major US and multinational paper, coffee, banana, timber, and food companies bought into the idea that incorporating sustainability - and the environmental agenda - into their core values could lead to increased business opportunities.

Today's marketplace is defined by suspicion of globalization, empty corporate claims, and "greenwash," served by an Internet that provides increasingly more environmental information, and powered by business leaders eager to align their companies (and thus safeguard their reputations) with corporate responsibility without realizing what is required. For many, this means developing deep partnerships with NGOs, which enjoy greater public trust than business and government in Europe and the US.

The media, albeit slowly, also have embraced the sustainability agenda, not just increasing their reporting of environmental issues, but also starting to report on their own contributions. For PR pros, this will surely change the landscape we seek to influence in the months and years to come.

Globally, consumer values are shifting, too. Consumers are willing to make choices based on sustainability, not just price.

As far back as 2003, 78% of Americans told a CSR Monitor poll that they would pay 10% more for a responsibly produced product. Roughly half of all North Americans claim that they avoid buying environmentally harmful products or brands. In the UK, the ethical marketplace is now estimated to be worth around $50 billion (a 40% increase since 1999).

Challenges remain. Sustainability is still viewed as niche, not mainstream. The UN Global Compact and the United Nations Environment Programme have reported that those willing to buy sustainable products far outnumber those who actually do.

The key to addressing these ongoing challenges lies in communications. Consumers want more information about the social and environmental costs and benefits of products they buy. Finding innovative ways to communicate this information in this new "sustainability economy" is our greatest challenge and opportunity.

For PR pros, a major opportunity exists to help companies communicate their sustainability differentiation and relevance.

In order to succeed, sustainability communications must be accessible, transparent, and truthful. The message must be simple, clear and easy to understand. Unfortunately, environmental and social initiatives tend to be highly complex, charged with politics, and rooted in science of little or no interest to the everyday consumer. Attempts to communicate sustainability must be made in simple, consumer-friendly language that states the facts, eliminates the jargon, and shortens decision-making time.

No company that has invested in getting all these ingredients right will ever regret it. Those who fail to embrace the new ethical marketplace may come to rue the day they ignored this opportunity.

Brendan May is head of corporate responsibility at Weber Shandwick, UK. This article is abridged from a speech given at the Rainforest Alliance's annual marketing conference in New York.

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