How does your company define "sustainability"?
Is it a synonym for "environmental responsibility"? Is it about health and wellness? Maybe it's about quality, longevity or sourcing strategies. Or maybe it means, "We treat people and the communities we serve with respect."
Any of the above could work, and we've been on our soapbox for the last few years proclaiming that now is the time for you to define what this term means for your organization in the context of what your brand stands for, the market cares about and your internal culture will embrace. Because right now, when you ask Americans to define sustainability, the No. 1 answer is the equivalent of, "Um, could you repeat the question?" This means you get to define it in a way that makes sense for your organization before Americans have agreed upon what it means.
But if you have to choose between environmental responsibility or social responsibility as your definition — if you can't back both horses — your choice, from a sheer sales and marketing perspective, should be driven by the market.
What the market says
On the consumer side, the Shelton Group's 2013 Eco Pulse study revealed that environmental responsibility is slightly more appealing. Twelve percent of Americans say a company's environmental reputation very much impacts their decision on whether to buy its products. But only 8 percent list "maintain high corporate social responsibility standards" as one of the three most important things companies should be doing that would positively affect purchase decisions.
In the business-to-business world, the Shelton Group's just-released B2B Pulse study shows it's 180 degrees different. Only 5 percent of business decision-makers say a strong corporate environmental track record is very important in making product selection decisions, while 9 percent say a strong social responsibility track record is very important.
The study defined "social responsibility" as "fair wages, good working conditions, community involvement, etc.," and these are the top-box, top-line results. It's a complex issue, and your best definition (from the standpoint of what the audience cares about) will differ based on your category and who the decision-maker is. On the consumer side, if your likely buyer is an "active," she will care about a specific set of defining features of sustainability that differ from what a "skeptic" will care about. On the B2B side, a purchasing manager will prioritize different sustainability/responsibility features from a CIO.
The point is this: The window is still open for you to define your commitment to sustainability in a way that truly fits with the DNA of your brand and your market. But do the homework to understand what your market cares about or you risk missing the mark and launching a sustainability/responsibility communications strategy that doesn't resonate with your core audience.