It's no secret that "being green" sells, but faking it could cost you big time.
We recently saw this article from Harvard Business Review on the negative toll "greenwashing" takes on the bottom line. This is environmental marketing gone wrong: when you purport to care about the planet...but fail to take any meaningful action to back up the claim. Consumers see right through it and punish you for it (in the EU, perhaps legally).
Simultaneously, poll after poll finds that customers are increasingly motivated by environmental marketing and have high expectations for sustainability claims...genuine ones, that is. Your job as a company is to embody sustainable principles so that you can boast about them without a guilty conscience.
Today's consumer wants to see the companies they trust with their dollars act as good stewards for people and the planet. While many companies are reverse engineering eco-friendly materials into their supply chain, offsetting carbon emissions, and deploying recycling programs, there are unique ways a company can go even further in "walking the walk" and then communicating genuinely in their environmental marketing.
As founders in the customer engagement vertical with backgrounds in climate action, we've done our fair share of analysis about the key principles of sustainability marketing. In 2019, researchers Ballantine and Kemper published a meta-review of 200 published papers on the topic of sustainability marketing strategy. They conceptualize three levels of sustainability marketing:
Stage 1. Auxiliary Sustainability Marketing: focuses on the production of sustainable products. We'll call this "doing less damage."
Stage 2. Reformative Sustainability Marketing: extends the auxiliary approach through the promotion of sustainable lifestyles and behavioural changes. Adding a proactive positive rather than simply mitigating a negative. We'll call this "doing active good."
Stage 3. Transformative Sustainability Marketing: extends the first two approaches and embraces the need for transformation of current institutions and norms, and critical reflection. We'll call this "doing it different."
"Doing Less Damage"
Innovating through this approach to sustainability marketing has frankly become the bare minimum for most modern consumers. When we shop, we want confirmation that the production methods and materials aren't ecologically destructive and do not violate human rights. While this approach may have stood out in the 90's, it's becoming an expectation today. Even the least responsible fast fashion brands are introducing "sustainable" fabrics and signing agreements on labour conditions. Here are some examples of environmental marketing that fall under the "doing less damage" category:
- Apple’s Supplier Responsibility: Apple markets on the claim that their products are responsibly created and requires every supplier in their production chain to meet these minimum requirements. This contract considers the production conditions, techniques, and processes associated with their technology and sets a standard for operation and reporting. Doing less damage means a zero-tolerance policy for abusive and dangerous conditions.Note: This is not only humane but strategic. Increasingly, regulations require nuanced tracking and reporting of Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions associated with product production across the whole supply chain. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting requires an additional consideration of social elements, such as child labour, fair wages, and safe working conditions.
- Beautycounter's "The Never List": This company puts boundaries around the types of exposures and risks associated with the production and use of their products. The scary truth is that toxic chemicals hide in everything from soap to apparel. To combat materials waste and irresponsible disposal, the company also introduced refillable products. Doing less damage means using no harmful ingredients and aiming to produce sustainable items with long lifespans and circular end-of-life strategies.
"Doing Active Good"
Beyond simply reducing the harms of status-quo consumption and exploitative production, this category of sustainability marketing goes one step further and introduces additive, positive lifestyles and behaviours. Customers can get excited about supporting a company that isn't just "not bad" but is actively contributing to regenerative practices and changing behaviour norms. For example:
- Rent the Runway: This was one of the first heavy-hitter companies that meaningfully shifted consumer mindsets from individual ownership to lending, leasing, and sharing models.
- ThreadUp: A great example of a business model that incentivizes desired behaviours (reducing waste from landfill) by offering credit or cash for properly recycling unwanted clothing.
"Doing it Different"
Per Ballantine and Kemper, this category “aims to change institutions that inhibit a transition to a sustainable society…valuing continuity over profit…[and addressing] the barriers that consumers face with sustainable consumption; such as our persuasive consumption ideology, institutional barriers, and social norms.”
Companies that reach stage 3 are flipping the norm on its head. Instead of simply doing more of the same with less damage or encouraging band-aid remedies to an inherently flawed system, companies that "do it different" are disruptors. Think of Patagonia on black friday with their 2011 Don’t Buy This Jacket campaign and its more recent “Buy Less Demand More.” Focusing on fewer items with quality to last a lifetime and encouraging customers to get out into the world and make a positive impact. Now, that's the future of sustainability marketing.
Companies deploying transformative sustainability marketing are asking: are there ways to engage a customer without simply selling them something? How do we reimagine the system of purchase and consumption completely?
Are you asking the same questions? Thinking about how to amplify the impact of your sustainability marketing without suffering the consequences of inauthentic greenwashing?
Try these ideas on for size.
- Introduce Circularity. An internal recycling program is an authentic way to engage eco-minded customers and, as a bonus, can be cost-saving for your team if done well to reduce material costs. Example: Levi Strauss & Company‘s “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign encourages consumers to reuse and recycle and raises awareness of the environmental impact of apparel production. Bonus points if you offer customers the ability to both return old clothing for credit and purchase used gear directly from your site (see: Patagonia's Worn Wear.) You're genuinely reducing your environmental impact and giving your loyal customers something to brag about!
- Buy One Give One. This concept isn't new (Tom's broke the mold with this idea in the early 2000's), but it continues to drive impact and customer loyalty. By committing to either donate product or funds with each purchase, companies can amplify the good they do in the world. Warby Parker's "give a pair" empowers under-resourced communities with eye exams and life-changing vision care. It sounds cliché, but this strategy still works and still inspires prospective customers.
- Align Your Loyalty Program with Your Values. If you find yourself wondering if there are ways to increase retention and LTV without just emailing discount codes, consider deploying a loyalty program that engages with customers in non-transactional ways. For example, with rippl rewards you can create custom rewardable "actions," from recycling packaging to signing a social justice petition to attending a brand-sponsored event IRL. High-touch engagement about more than just semi-annual sales is an effective way to signal authentic investment in environmental and social well-being. You're in essence mobilizing your customer base for good! This type of program also shifts the dominant consumer narrative about how and why to engage with companies -- perhaps not just to purchase, but to learn, build community, and create a collective positive "rippl" effect.
Note: To learn more about the software and join the waitlist visit www.ripplrewards.com