By Daniel Owen, CEO of B2B marketing agency The Armstrong Partnership
Sustainability has become a buzzword for practically every industry around the world – but it is anything but a passing trend.
Let’s be clear: sustainability strategies are fundamental to a business’ long-term development and success in markets that are growing ever-more environmentally conscious.
The reality is that we cannot stop critical supply chains producing what the world needs. However, companies need to take decisive action to tackle the global warming crisis, otherwise we will continue marching into catastrophe.
As businesses across every sector grapple with how to effectively reduce their environmental impact and embrace sustainable technologies and processes, there’s a question mark over the best way to communicate your efforts.
There is much more awareness and appreciation for ethical and sustainable practices now, particularly from younger generations who not only are more health conscious, but also far more conscious of the footprint they leave behind them. This, in turn, has amplified the need for businesses to assess their practices and work out how to change their operations – because they recognise that to survive, they must adapt.
And, as the world continues to strengthen its focus on the importance of sustainability, companies will find themselves increasingly monitored, assessed and selected based on their sustainable practices – be it business to business or business to consumer.
How businesses choose to communicate their green credentials is vital to the success of sustainable strategies and to avoid labels of greenwashing – so how can they rise to the challenge?
Overcoming business challenges in the race to sustainability
The main challenge that many businesses face is that the speed in which they want to change is hampered by the speed in which sustainable and ethical materials, fuel, technology and the necessary supporting infrastructure, is being developed. This creates a vacuum, leaving businesses in limbo and frustrated by a slower pace of development.
The other major challenge is that it generally costs more to produce sustainably. There are several reasons for this; new technology that has not yet been industrialised is expensive, and companies that have made something which they believe can change an industry often charge a premium for it.
Many businesses already use broadly sustainable practices – for example reducing expenditure such as energy and water usage, or by introducing circular economy principles. Other businesses have taken an ethical stance towards the materials or processes they use or have become active in decarbonising a route to market by optimising the supply chain and removing unnecessary journeys. While they may seem like obvious changes, companies can and should celebrate what they are doing today – which is where a clear and concise communication strategy is required.
How marketing needs to approach sustainability messaging
Like with every communication strategy, the first step is an audit of the business’ current status. You need to understand the business’ sustainable stance, the measures they are taking and the stretch goals of the organisation. It’s also important to note where the major roadblocks lie in that sector, and how the business could use its position to effect positive change more quickly.
Starting with the vision and objectives – even if the company is behind where it should be – allows the entire organisation to clearly see the direction of travel and communication helps to drive belief and energy into sustainable practices. Bringing an identity to the objectives of the company is the next step; think about the point of difference and what really matters to its customers.
Many businesses are humble in their approach and do not feel their story is worth telling. I disagree – now is not a time for silence; we must all bring sustainability to the fore, as it is only when everyone is moving in the same direction that change will happen at speed.
Moreover, by sharing the business’ milestones, as well as the challenges and successes along the way, it demonstrates to other organizations what’s possible and reinforces the earlier point that the journey to becoming more sustainable is about long-term transformation – not an overnight fix.
In articulating and visualizing a sustainability strategy, businesses create an identity, realism and importance. Sustainability is ultimately about changing behaviour – but this cannot happen without a plan.
An effective sustainability story gives brands a competitive edge
A new generation of customers is entering the fold, coming from a generation with strong sustainable ethics. Even investors, who tend to be focused on ROI, are looking carefully into which companies are fit for the future. Those with compelling propositions that are based on product performance, production processes, planet initiatives and people centric programmes will fair far better in a world that’s demanding more ethical and sustainably run organisations.
Sustainability is also a value add – when two businesses find themselves at a similar price point, in my experience the competitive edge is awarded to the one not only trading sustainably, but also communicating effectively.
The greatest challenge we face as marketers is to drive our clients’ businesses along the right path to sustainability, by interrogating their approach, asking difficult questions and understanding the intended outcomes of their actions. In order to do our jobs most effectively, we must drill down into the detail and use this evidence to develop engaging and compelling marketing propositions that will stand up to increasing customer scrutiny and ensure the longevity of a business, its products and its place in the world.