AkzoNobel's Chris Cook sets out his four must-haves for a successful sustainable business strategy
Today many businesses across the globe are making steady progress towards a low-carbon economy based on products and services that use resources more carefully. But an increasing number of businesses want to bring consumers with them - to urge them to adopt more sustainable lifestyles, to cut down wasteful behaviors and, ultimately, to buy more products and services along the way.
However this is not an easy task and few examples of good consumer engagement on sustainability exist. So the question is how should companies approach this topic? Should they even bother to engage consumers on sustainability issues?
Making it easy
If you want consumers to change their behaviour, you need to make it as easy as possible. Evidence of this can be seen most visibly in the recycling rates of local authorities. In the UK there are many examples of local authorities whose recycling rates were boosted by as much as 50 per cent when they moved to a single-stream system, where all recyclables for collection are mixed but kept separate from other waste. Ensuring there is just one bin for your recyclables can make all the difference.
No compromise on quality or price
In the 1990s, many consumer goods companies tried to create niche products that would tap into the increasingly eco-aware consumer. But people willing to compromise on price or performance in favour of green products never really expanded beyond 10 per cent of consumers. Today many companies are starting to realise that the key to success is integrating sustainability into mainstream products that perform equally well on quality, price and planet. And rather than "selling sustainability", these companies are promoting the customer benefits that these environmental attributes provide. A great example of this is the way car manufacturers promote reductions in tailpipe emissions in terms of savings on fuel costs. In a similar way, at AkzoNobel we promote our light reflective coatings by highlighting their ability to save money on energy bills.
At AkzoNobel we witness a disconnect between the increasing number of people who want to live more sustainably and their engrained purchasing habits. In our experience, consumers don't want to have to make a difficult choice. They want us to do the hard work for them, providing coatings that are durable, that have low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and paints that contain fewer solvents or no solvents at all.
Increasingly businesses are using "choice editing" to promote their sustainable products and services. For example, mandatory energy labeling means that we are seeing a shift towards A and A+ rating TVs. But that is being largely driven by big retailers who don't want to be seen stocking C, D, and E rated TVs. Another very visible example of choice editing is the phase out of incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient lighting alternatives which has been undertaken by governments around the world.
Telling a positive story
The entire sustainability movement is beginning to realise that the "doom and gloom" message that many environmentalists have employed over the years is not particularly motivating. For years people have tried to 'sell' climate change, using reams of data to support their case. But consumers aren't buying these often dull and depressing messages.
Many companies are starting to wake up to this and can see the value in communicating a more positive story. Whilst being mindful of falling into the trap of "greenwashing", they recognize the need to build a more compelling vision of what a more sustainable future could look like.
A prime example of this is Marks & Spencer's Plan A sustainability campaign. The company's positive and high-visibility strategy is undoubtedly helping to build trust amongst customers who feel good about shopping at M&S, safe in the knowledge that the company is doing the right thing.
Of course, this is part of what companies have been doing for years to build their brands and they are very good at it. They know that a strong brand can help them retain and attract new customers and even enable them to charge more for their products. A strong sustainability message is just another vital ingredient to this process.
Clearly, companies can wield tremendous power in reaching people and they should not be afraid to engage with their customers on sustainability matters. This is not an easy road to take and they should be aware of the issues I have highlighted in this article. Ultimately though, this is a vital road to travel down if they are to win the trust of their consumers in the long term.
When people ask us what sustainability means to AkzoNobel, we tell them that our success depends on it. But our story is an optimistic one - we know we have to do more with less and we see this as an opportunity as well as a challenge. We call this approach Planet Possible - it's our commitment to finding opportunities where there don't appear to be any.
Chris Cook is global sustainability director for AkzoNobel Decorative Paints