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5 communications tips to market sustainability

Research shows three factors keep consumers from choosing products that are better for the environment: confusion; trust gaps; and not enough information. Here's how to get around that.

While consumers are increasingly interested in buying products that are better for the environment and for people than the alternative, three factors involving communications often prevent them from doing so: not enough information; gaps in trust; and confusion. These are some top insights derived from The Conference Board’s recently published global survey of 32,000 consumers in 64 countries.

Companies that want to better promote the sustainability attributes of their brands should look at these findings with optimism. After all, they reinforce why marketing — done right — can be so effective. Here are five ways to address the communications gap revealed by the research:

1. Consider localizing your messaging

Sustainability does not mean the same thing to everyone. Consumers around the world associate sustainability with different focus areas, according to our research.

In North America, they mostly associate it with recycling; in Europe and the Middle East and Africa, shoppers typically link sustainability to fair price; Latin Americans first think about alternative sources of energy; and for those in Asia-Pacific, the environment first comes to mind.

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These diverse perceptions raise a vital question for sustainability marketers: Should they continue using "sustainability" labels universally or should they localize their brand messaging to better focus on local markets’ perceptions of sustainability?

What works best inevitably will vary by brand. For example, a catch-all term such as "conscious," a label that fashion brand H&M uses for its sustainable clothing, accommodates a range of environmental and social initiatives, but it doesn’t convey specificity. Labels such as "green" or "eco" are general yet suggest an environmental focus.

2. Seek certification

While extra cost continues to be a high barrier for consumers, for brands with better environmental practices our research found that shoppers often refrain from buying such brands due to a lack of information and trust. Consumers either find it too time-consuming to research which brands are truly better, they don’t trust companies’ environmental claims or find them confusing. 

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A solution could be to seek third-party certifications, which consumers may see as trustworthy intermediaries for vetting sustainability claims. There are many types of labels, such as Energy Star and Fairtrade. There’s also the comprehensive Certified B Corporation label, which requires passing rigorous performance standards on both social and environmental dimensions.

3. Aim for transparency

Shoppers are increasingly interested in supply chain transparency, including materials used, production processes and working conditions. But they often lack sufficient information about these things. According to our survey, that’s the leading reason for consumers to not buy brands with fair labor practices. They simply don’t know which brands are really being "fair."

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Considering the increasing discussions around the world about minimum wage and gender pay equity, fair labor practices may indeed become more important to consumers. Hence, to win over consumers, marketers should think about putting more emphasis on communicating their brands’ equitable working conditions.

For example, the fashion brand Everlane gives customers access to comprehensive information about its supply chain. For each item on its website, the company breaks down its cost composition and links to images and a description of the factory, truly living up to its "radical transparency" tagline.

Companies also can get their products listed in apps that provide information that’s not on their labels. SmartLabel is one of those apps that reveals products’ ingredients, third-party certifications, social compliance, sustainability programs and sourcing practices.

4. Visualize and humanize

One way to make transparency feel real is to give your customers a visual peek behind the scenes — of your workers, their environment and your processes. While live views are ideal, recorded videos of brands’ sustainability practices also can work well.

In academic field experiments, such videos at point-of-sale kiosks increased people’s likelihood to buy by 20 percent compared to regular brand videos.

One video featured apparel brand Alta Gracia’s working conditions and interviews with workers about their living wage. Another showed Counter Culture Coffee’s composting chaff from its roasting process. This research shows that giving customers a view behind the curtain has many benefits. It can increase customers’ trust and satisfaction and ultimately sales.

And aside from showcasing a work setting, putting a face to what people spend their money on can create an authentic human connection. For example, the Starfish Project, which helps exploited women in Asia transition into a life of freedom, created a jewelry brand to teach these women professional skills. Inserts in its jewelry boxes introduce the woman jewelers, and its website features their images and story.

5. Communicate concrete benefits of sustainability  

Help your customers understand the positive impact of sustainable products by connecting the benefits to their everyday lives. For example, energy efficiency is best expressed in dollar terms rather than as energy savings because people understand money better than scientific metrics.

German rail company Deutsche Bahn provides a valuable tool that quantifies the carbon dioxide emission, energy consumption and air pollutants of a specified trip by train compared to the same trip by car or airplane. While the comparative data help passengers make informed choices, could these scientific metrics be expressed in terms that people can even better relate to, such as how many trees a certain amount of carbon emission could damage?

Similarly, companies can express the benefits of sustainable packaging in concrete terms, such as the amount of plastic waste avoided or the number of trees saved. Another way to demonstrate positive aspects of sustainability is to showcase new products made from recycled materials.

For example, the "I Used To Be A Plastic Bottle" bags developed by HummingBag illustrate how plastic waste can be converted into practical, appealing, everyday items. Even some luxury brands are showcasing the use of recycled materials: High-end fashion brand Anya Hindmarch created the "I am a plastic bag" tote made from 32 half-liter recycled plastic bottles. And in the sports world, Adidas built a football field in Miami with turf made from 1.8 million recycled plastic bottles.

All of these communications initiatives can help brands achieve more value from sustainability initiatives. For greatest leverage, marketers should closely partner with departments beyond marketing and sustainability, including sourcing, operations and new product development teams, as well as outside partners such as certification agencies. By leveraging their communications teams, brands can build trust with consumers through education on their sustainability efforts.

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