Consumers have warmed to the environmental pressure group and the time
has come for business to follow suit, says John Gray
This week’s Business in the Community report which says that 86 per cent
of consumers would prefer to buy a product associated with a cause comes
as no surprise. Having worked with both pressure groups and business
over the past eight years, it is interesting to see environmentalists
building stronger relationships with the public and enjoying the trust
of many while business procrastinates and for the most part retreats
behind a veil of denial and diversion.
Originally environmentalism was seen as the obsession of long-haired
tree huggers, woolly liberals, and flaky academics. Things have since
moved on dramatically, primarily due to the fact that environmentalism
is no longer dismissed as barking mad. Global warming has now been
proven, people are complaining about the effects of air pollution
through increased vehicle use, and there is widespread condemnation of
the treatment of animals, all of which is having a direct effect on our
quality of life, the food that we eat, the air that we breathe.
While business has moved dramatically towards listening to the concerns
of environmentalists, so have environmentalists moved towards business.
Those organisations who still have the out moded view that environmental
pressure groups can be ignored, and they will simply go away are in for
a shock, as recently experienced by both Shell and United Biscuits.
Shell seriously underestimated the public outcry against dumping Brent
Spar, and United Biscuits found themselves similarly embarrassed when
they chose to ignore Greenpeace’s pleas to pull out of using fish oil
produced from industrial fishing. They capitulated when they found
Greenpeace campalgners dressed in penguin suits sitting in their
boardroom and photos appeared in all of the national press and media the
Some of Britain’s more enlightened organisations now have an
environmental management division which looks at every area of the
company’s business and its impact on the environment. They are also
responsible for identifying those issues which the organisation is going
to have to respond to, and working out cost effective solutions. These
departments are in contact with the pressure groups, know their agenda,
and endeavour not to be caught out. However, token gestures do not wash.
Members of the public are now much more discerning. They are extremely
concerned about environmental issues, and how they affect the goods and
services which they buy. Customers expect retailers and manufacturers to
take environmental concerns seriousy, adapting their product and
services accordingly, but do not expect to have to pay more for this.
The business community needs to constantly examine practice and process
in order to manage reputation and create competitive edge. There are
still many companies, who believe that by launching environmental awards
indulging in cynical sponsorships and having discussions with pressure
groups they are building lasting relationships and reducing risks. They
are deluding themselves.
John Gray is chairman of Media Natura