As the role of the customer in society changes, so too does the role of business. And in a recent piece for GSB, Suresh Ariaratnam writes: “If businesses were to engage with customers not simply as consumers but as citizens, it would be a meaningful acknowledgment of the existence of something much larger.”

We gathered a group of experts online to discuss the ways that companies can engage consumers in sustainable behaviour and take further the idea proposed by Ariaratnam. Our panel included Justin Keeble, managing director for Accenture sustainability services Europe Africa and Latin America; Richard Gillies, director of Plan A for Marks & Spencer; David Willans, marketing director for Futerra; Forum for the Future’s deputy chief executive Sally Uren; Unilever’s global new business director Holly Whelan; and marketing and communications manager for Eosta, Michael Wilde.

The major themes of 2013

David Coethica entered the live discussion with a huge question: what will be the main themes for sustainable consumption in 2013?

Sally Uren was pretty clear on this one: “Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.” David Willans agreed collaboration would be important, along with transparency. Justin Keeble also pointed to collaboration and added that business model innovation, like a shift towards a circular economy could be expected of the year ahead. Holly Whelan also put collaboration forward as her top theme, which officially confirmed its place among 2013 buzzwords.

‘Selling’ sustainability or making it the default?

Should sustainability be something businesses keep having to ‘sell’ to consumers, or should it be redesigned so that consumers make sustainable choices by default? Michael Wilde, using organic fruit and vegetables as an example, said that while a group of consumers will always be engaged with sustainable issues, if you’re to involve the mainstream, you have to take certain decisions for them. Richard Gillies agreed that making sustainability the default choice would be challenging but the only long term solution for engaging the majority.

Although retailers historically display horror at the concept of choice editing, in actuality they edit choice on a daily basis, it’s just not always through the lens of sustainability, noted Sally Uren. Felicity Hartnett who worked on the London 2012 sustainability team joined the conversation and said that by collaborating with sponsors and suppliers, they edited a lot of choices for spectators by way of compostable packaging and recycling. “If it can be done at an Olympic scale, it can be done anywhere,” she concluded.

Putting sustainability into the imagination

Of course, choice editing can only work for certain behaviours as David Willans points out. Making transport choices for instance involves a conscious choice, so how can sustainable consumption really get into the imagination of consumers? Michael Wilde points to the importance of driving the ‘what’s in it for me’ approach. When people realise their purchase has a direct or indirect positive effect on themselves or their loved ones, only then will that purchase become routine. Accenture’s Justin Keeble agrees, adding that the consumer must be engaged in a conversation about value, not sustainability.

It’s also important, Keeble continues, that the message is communicated clearly, not just to your consumers, but the whole corporate marketing team. Holly Whelan extends the point – people have good intentions and few will deny they care about the planet but when it comes to ‘what’s in it for me’, their own interests and their families tend to come first. To grab the imagination of consumers, then, products and communication campaigns should have two dimensions. They should benefit the planet and crucially, the individual.

Holly Whelan used the example of the Axe (Lynx) campaign in America which promoted showering together: “it’s not just environmentally friendly, it’s all kinds of friendly.” A cheeky way of getting a serious message about water scarcity to their audience.

The importance of building a brand

So how do businesses like M&S manage the seemingly opposing objectives of selling more food to consumers while encouraging them to act sustainably? Richard Gillies replied that building sustainability into M&S’ products, making it easier for consumers to reduce their food waste by removing 20{f94e4705dd4b92c5eea9efac2f517841c0e94ef186bd3a34efec40b3a1787622} of packaging and building the “love food, hate waste” campaign adds to the appeal of M&S and builds customer loyalty. Futerra’s David Willans added that measuring success in terms of brand loyalty over short-term sales is, indeed, one way of solving the conundrum.

The importance of building a brand is evident again when Cindy joined the discussion to ask how mainstream consumers can cut through the confusing proliferation of green labels to beat “certification fatigue”. Justin Keeble stressed the need for better clarity, transparency and simplicity for the consumer and Richard Gillies said that consumers have to trust brands have done the work for them. Gilles elaborates that you can simplify the decision process for your customer enormously by ensuring all your products meet minimum standards and basic sustainability needs. If a customer is assured you only sell free range eggs and use FSC packaging, for example, there is much less for them to think about.

David Willans adds that to earn that trust, a brand has to be consistent in their behaviour and communication. Sally Uren agrees, saying, “brands cut through clutter. Ultimately we wont see labels as the successful brands of the future will be the sustainable ones.

Is it working?

How do you know if you’re engaging consumers with sustainability? In one word says Richard Gillies: “Participation“. Perhaps the engagement is evident in the sale of a particular product or in an activity; are more customers refusing hangers and carrier bags?

The demand for sustainability is there, it’s a case of pitching things in the right way to create value. Business, says David Willans, is society’s engine of innovation and successful ones create amazing thing.

Source: The Guardian