How can brands bridge the sustainability-trust gap?
Lucy Usher of Oliver looks into research that suggests that few people really trust brands to follow through on their sustainability promises – and recommends how to bridge that gap.
How can brands truly earn trust through their sustainability efforts? / Michal Matlon via Unsplash
No one likes making promises they can't keep, least of all businesses in the public eye. Yet, right now, as the world heads deeper into financial instability, some fear that brands and businesses won’t be able to keep their sustainability promises.
Achieving net zero is, wrongly, seen as expensive, difficult and only for the fortunate few. But by slowing down on sustainable and net zero goals, businesses put themselves behind the transformation needed to succeed in a net zero world that continues to sprint ahead.
Promises matter now more than ever (just look at the state of politics). Delivering on the commitments we’ve made will not only deliver better brands and companies for this and future generations; it’ll also deliver trust, responsibility and accountability within boardrooms.
Here are the ways brands and businesses can become uncompromisable on their sustainability promises in 2023 (arguably one of the most challenging years for the climate on record).
The far-reaching financial benefits of being a trusted brand
Globally, we’re far from reaching the IPCC’s goal of keeping global warming within a 1.5°C temperature rise. Advertising emissions add an extra 32% to the annual carbon footprint of every person in the UK. That’s like running an extra nine coal-fired power plants every year (in the UK alone).
As a measurable framework for advertising emissions emerges, brands will no longer be able to ignore the tension between growth targets and net zero investment.
Alongside reputational benefits, there are clear financial benefits to being a trusted sustainable brand. Brands with a strong sustainability DNA outperform competitors by 21%, in both profitability and environmental and social impact. Businesses’ bottom lines and the planet can both benefit from effective and economical sustainability plans that cater to all, not just ‘ethical consumers’.
Bridging the sustainability-trust gap
According to data from market research company GWI, 62% of consumers are only a little trusting that brands will stick to their environmental claims or pledges. 22% don’t trust brands at all. With a significant rise in greenwashing, it’s no surprise that shoppers are skeptical.
How can brands bridge this sustainability-trust gap? Here are four considerations.
Sustainability isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. Brands must enter this journey with a spirit of inquiry and a can-do attitude.
Define what you want your business to stand for and what you want its sustainability purpose to be. Then, talk to customers. Use feedback to prioritize areas of the business where people would most like change, whether that’s packaging, manufacturing processes, distribution methods, or recycling. This will open the conversation in the long run.
With evolving technologies and breakthroughs happening all the time, brands don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to adopting sustainable ways of working. But nor do we have time to all work in silos on the same problems. Instead, we must collaborate on reaching common goals rapidly.
There’s a wealth of existing credible sustainability frameworks to choose from that offer help with structural, operational, and cultural change. From the Conscious Advertising Network and Purpose Disruptors’ Advertised Emissions Framework to the Change The Brief Alliance, there are many resources to tap into.
Education and training are key to embedding sustainability into the core values and practices of any business. It is important that sustainability considerations become business-as-usual: from creative ideas to operational deliverables. This means providing staff (at all levels) with training and aligning them to the brand’s commitments.
The opposite of this is a workforce ignorant of the rapidly changing landscape. They will be forced to focus on risk avoidance only (like adhering to the Green Claims Code), rather than seizing the opportunities awaiting upskilled businesses who are able to act on the ‘system upgrades’ that sustainable thinking brings.
Small changes add up. In terms of building trust with customers, an upskilled workforce is the biggest advocate for your brand.
Tell everyone about your commitments – but only if you mean it. It should stem from a genuine desire to be a better brand, not just to win brownie points.
When goals are communicated and measured, they stand a better chance of being delivered. As a key trust-builder for customers (with their growing cynicism around authentic commitments to change), brands need to share transparent, data-backed sustainability progress.
Be, do, tell
Putting it even more simply, brands need to apply the ‘be, do, tell’ methodology. Brands tend to shout about sustainability pledges before putting the work in, which leads to distrust when targets aren’t met.
Instead, they should be sustainable, do the things that make them authentically sustainable businesses, then tell consumers about it. Even more simply: be better, do better, then tell customers how you’ve made better.
Sustainability investments aren’t just about reaching net zero targets. They’re heavily focused on improving overall performance. It’s up to everyone to drive change, and those at the top will benefit faster in the future by keeping their promises now.
Be, do, tell – and enjoy being one of the few that actually deliver.
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