According to a new US report launched last week the growing use of the term "sustainability" to promote green business models is struggling to convey the desired message with relatively few consumers claiming to be familiar with the term.
In fact, the survey of 1,600 US consumers from market research firm The Hartman Group found that the terms "sustainability" and "sustainable development" had no consistent meaning amongst consumers. Furthermore, while 93 percent of respondents displayed some form of sustainability or green "consciousness" through their actions only those who already identified themselves as green consumers defined "sustainability" as an environmental term.
This confusion is hardly surprising given the immaturity of green marketing and advertising, and, as Greenbiz.com observed in its reporting of the story, it also suggests the "marketers don't yet understand how to push green ideas".
The problem from a marketing perspective with the term "sustainability" and, to a lesser extent, the term "green" is that the lack of clear definitions invites suspicion that the processes or products you are trying to promote don't have solid environmentally-friendly credentials.
"Sustainability" is particularly problematic because while most people probably do understand that the term refers to a "process that can be maintained" they are also aware that it is not the same as "environmental sustainability". Unless you are looking at millennia-long time lines there is no reason that a "sustainable process" cannot do damage to the environment, and I'd wager consumers are savvy enough to realise this.
Once you start to think about what "sustainability" really means you find that there are numerous examples where a maintainable process can still have detrimental environmental effects. Recycling processes, for example, are easily labelled sustainable, but that does not stop concerns about their energy footprint; sustainable economic development may by definition be self-perpetuating, but it is not hard to find examples where it has been achieved at the expense of the environment.
As such if marketers are keen to use the term "sustainability" in their green messaging they need to clarify it as "environmental sustainability" and provide clear information on how the processes or products are genuinely limiting their environmental impact.
None of these recommendations will be welcomed by "green-washing" firms who are often guilty of exploiting the vagueness of the green business nomenclature to make bold claims about the environmental credentials of a product or service which are not backed up by clear verifiable data.
However, we are already seeing signs that this disingenuousness will not be tolerated with Shell recently seeing its brand dragged through the mud over "misleading" adverts that environmental campaigners insist over state its green achievements.
Meanwhile, those firms willing to clearly articulate the green credentials of their organisation are using their marketing campaigns to highlight their rivals' environmental obfuscation. Supermarket chain Waitrose recently launched a new TV ad campaign in which it notes that retailers are increasingly stocking local produce, before delivering the punchline that Waitrose is the only store to define what "local" actually means - namely food produced within 30 miles of the store.
It is a pretty powerful message and proves that if marketers are going to try and build green brands it can only be done with clearly defined terms and quantifiable results. Green business campaigns are one of those instances where style over substance just won't cut it.
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