Now, after nearly a decade of build-up, sustainability and "green" were the issues du jour for much of 2007 and 2008; but with the recent market crash, the national dialogue has turned more toward keeping a roof over your head than keeping a green roof over your head. So what's a sustainable brand to do? Here are a few strategies to keep you afloat during these tumultuous times.
1. First, take pride in your sustainable brand, and know that there's a strong core of people out there who still care about sustainability and who will continue to care. They may not use the word, but they've been getting on the path for quite some time now -- buying organics, recycling, using CFLs, embracing companies that support fair trade and social/environmental causes, seeking out local products, seeking less toxic products for home and body, seeking health and wellness and a more balanced and simplified lifestyle, supporting positive environmental actions and social justice whenever possible.
The behaviors in this constellation of activities all comprise sustainability: It represents a psychic evolution that people go through over time, and it's difficult to go backwards once you've begun to progress down the path. So while we'll likely see pullbacks from the double-digit growth we've seen in most sustainability sectors in the past decade (because of a general economic slowdown), the fundamentals here are still sound.
Sustainability-seeking "conscious consumers" exist along a continuum, defined by all the various "sustainable" actions people may or may not take, and comprise as much as 85 percent of the U.S. population -- with around 20 percent of the population far enough into this mindset that it's come to become part of their identities. These people are not just going to evaporate. A recent poll confirms this: 85 percent of people still want to purchase products from socially responsible companies, economics be damned.
All of which leads us to 2.: If you're a "core" brand with true sustainability cred, you'll do just fine, and you'll probably even outperform the market at large. If you were just greenwashing, then now would be a good time to stop; the mass market is more concerned with "value" than with values at a time like this (no matter what they might claim on a survey), and the people who were just chasing the green trends will fall away as their 401ks collapse.
But if you're doing some bona fide good in the world, then you'd do well to keep going. The climate isn't going to stop changing anytime soon, awareness about toxicity issues will only become more sophisticated over time (witness the recent mainstream awareness about BPA and the shift towards glass baby bottles), and the need for sustainability will become more and more urgent as a global issue, even as the economy suffers. (And if Obama's new green deal falls into place, economic recovery and a burgeoning sustainability scene could become one and the same.)
3. Be socially responsible. Talk about it. Be more socially responsible than ever. Talk about it even more. Conscious consumers care much more about a company's internal socially responsible actions (how they treat their employees) than about their environmentally responsible ones. And this sentiment will only grow stronger during a period when job security is at a 35-year low.
Companies that treat people well will be seen as islands of enlightenment during this era of massive layoffs and pay cuts, and the more that you talk about the real things you're doing that are truly humanistic, the more that the "conscious consumer" will be drawn to your brand. Did you know that Patagonia lets everyone go surfing when the tide is high? That the revolutionary Brazilian company Semco lets employees (er, "associates") determine their own salaries? That Google offers everyone on their main campus three organic meals each day?
These are the sorts of things that conscious consumers care about, and that will ultimately help differentiate your brand. And -- oh yes -- it's the right thing to do. So now is a good time to look deep into your operating principles and find real -- not just gimmicky -- ways to make employees feel valued and cared about.