Consumers have become incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to the ways in which companies operate — from technical matters like data usage and privacy to societal issues like diversity, equity and inclusion. In turn, we’ve seen decision making not only become more complex, but also more directly related to individual values and moral standards.
And while consumers have in theory always cared about which companies they spend their money with, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly expedited the shift.
According to data from New Harris Poll, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a shift in mindset for consumers, upleveling concepts like equity and community service that traditionally weren’t top of mind when it came to making purchase decisions. In addition, 82 percent of shoppers indicated they want a consumer brand’s values to align with their own, with three-quarters stating they had parted ways with a brand over a conflict in values.
Today, sustainability has become a critical decision point for consumers. In fact, it has become something they might even pay more for. Why, you ask? Because it’s something they’re genuinely concerned about. According to a March 2022 study by First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the primary reason behind consumers’ sustainable purchases is a desire to help the environment. And just a few months later in June, we saw trend spends mirror this concern — with 45 percent of Gen Z reporting they had stopped purchasing particular brands due to sustainability- or ethics-related concerns.
With this shift in purchase behavior in mind, major brands have begun vocalizing their efforts to put sustainability first. Take Heineken, for example, which hopes to reach net zero emissions in its own operations by 2030. Or Ben & Jerry’s decision to feed its cows red seaweed to cut emissions from cow burps (surprisingly, it’s one of the largest contributors to the dairy industry’s carbon footprint). But as many brands today struggle to keep costs low and retain customers amid economic uncertainty, how can they make strides in sustainability while driving revenue?
A great first step is taking a sustainability-first approach to product innovation. According to Network for Sustainability, sustainable innovation means altering a company’s processes, products or services to generate long-term social and environmental benefits, while creating economic profits. I know, easier said than done. So what does this look like in practice?
The possibilities are endless. PepsiCo, for example, has worked to develop bio-based thermoplastic for display stands and uses artificial intelligence technology to mitigate water leaks in factories. Nuuly, Urban Outfitters’ clothing rental service, leverages Google Cloud to track how far and fast packages are traveling to help keep its carbon footprint to a minimum.
And sustainability goes far beyond the actual product or service. In addition to considerations about the sourcing of materials, manufacturing, or corporate travel, marketers must recognize the impact of their digital footprint. In fact, according to a study from FiftyFive, a typical digital advertising campaign from a single advertiser produces approximately 323 tons of carbon dioxide — or the equivalent of 160 round-trip flights between Paris and New York. It’s imperative that brands do their due diligence when enlisting advertising partners. Make sure they’re part of the solution by operating with sustainability in mind.
Once a brand has done this leg work, there’s an opportunity to transform those efforts into a marketing opportunity. By building out an external initiative, not only is the brand held accountable to track against the measures it sets, but there’s also then an opportunity to invite existing and new customers to come along for the ride. This will benefit both sales-facing initiatives like customer engagement and conversions, and internal-facing initiatives like recruiting and organizational culture. However, it’s critically important that an initiative of this nature is approached and produced with genuine intentions top of mind to avoid harmful consequences like greenwashing. Ideally, sustainability is authentically ingrained within an organization’s core values.
Arguably now more than ever, consumers want to spend their money with brands they feel good about. Be one of them. Not only can it help drive sales, but in this case it can help save the planet — and ensure there are future generations to market to.
Katie Murphy is an account director at Adform, a global digital media advertising technology company specializing in real-time programmatic marketing automation technologies.