It’s a catch 22 at its finest. Although consumers expect companies to drive positive social and environmental outcomes, 63% still believe brands only get involved with sustainability for commercial reasons. This paradox has left many brands in a state of sustainability-paralysis; tossing up between saying nothing and bearing the risk of seeming unsustainable, or, to say something and risk seeming… well, unsustainable.
So, how can B2B brands show they’re being sustainable for the right reasons?
“A useful starting point is actually asking yourself why your business needs to talk about sustainability” says Lauren Clifton, Junior Strategist at Earnest. “As a B2B marketing agency, one of the main challenges our clients face is that, like many brands, they weren’t created to be purpose-driven, instead, they were founded on a purpose that is generally unrelated to ‘sustainability’ and are now trying to become sustainable in retrospect”.
So, for these brands who are undergoing a sustainability transformation or are perhaps just at the beginning of their journeys, and are nervous to dip their toes into the pool of marketing sustainability, the key thing to consider is not just what to say but more crucially, what you can and should say.
Richard Cope, Senior Trends Consultant at Mintel notes that “a lot of brands are talking about sustainability because their competitors are doing it, when they should really be doing it to conserve resources and make money”.
He adds that when brands do speak about it, “a degree of fallibility is key— brands should speak about where they are in their sustainability journey and what they’ve achieved rather than focusing on targets”. Taking this approach means marketers should still focus on marketing the core benefits a product has to offer, rather than crowbarring sustainability messages in to seem more appealing— “it’s not going to sell just because it’s sustainable” Cope concludes.
But, when embarking on a sustainability message of any kind, it’s vital to focus on transparency as a guiding principle, though being honest will only get you so far; “it’s about having those proof points, so you’ve got something to fall back on” says Emilie Stephenson, Head of Force for Good at Innocent UK, who herself has admittedly fallen foul of greenwashing.
For any B2B brand wanting to build a credible sustainability narrative, accuracy and evidence are a crucial currency, especially with the launch of the Green Claims Code in January and the ASA clamping down on greenwashing in advertising even more.
“Brands must think about the accuracy of the science in any messages they put forward and ensure they have evidence to support their claims, all the way across their supply chains.
“When brands get it wrong, it’s because they haven’t recognised that this is one of the most complicated parts of advertising” says Miles Lockwood, the ASA’s director of complaints and investigations.
‘Complicated’ is an understatement— “sustainability may be green, but it’s never black and white” affirms Stephenson.
In the world of B2B, we’re no strangers to complexity. But to make sure your sustainability message lands with the customer, it’s important to “bring it back to topics they understand and lead them in with humour, and a human way of talking before taking them through to the more serious and complex topics,” says Stephenson.
And the data backs this approach up as well: “People do find the statistics depressing, so selling the sizzle not the sausage holds true” says Richard Cope, Mintel.
However, on the point of customers and the subject of ‘customer-centricity’ (something we’ll all be familiar with), sustainability is an area where brands should take the lead. “Brands are letting sustainability become a consumer-led issue, rather than educating customers on what the real issues are. An example of this is ‘plastic-free’ and all the brands who are completely fixated on it whether or not it has a lower environmental footprint than the alternatives” says Cope.
“By contrast you have brands like Patagonia who, twelve years ago, weren’t afraid to address customer feedback about why their jacket arrived in a plastic bag — they respected their customers to explain ‘why’; because if you don’t use a plastic bag then that coat is going to get damaged and then the environmental impact of that jacket being wasted is far bigger than any plastic”.
This is a really important lesson that the B2B world can take on board in terms of educating decision makers on why a company has made a certain decision in regards to sustainability.
It’s crucial that brands get comfortable with owning their sustainability narrative so that we can all better understand the ways in which our industries work and the depth of the interdependencies at play. It’s now more important to know where a brand needs to improve rather than where it’s doing well — only through understanding this will we be able to see opportunities, collaborate and develop new, sustainable processes that work for everyone across a supply chain. Sustainability is a journey, and not a destination.
So, B2B marketers, whether your business is doing valuable work in the sustainability space or not, don’t hide in the shadows— it’s time to be brave, be human, and above all, be real.
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