30 Under 30

Every sustainability team needs a customer-facing specialist

It’s common knowledge that the modern-day consumer desires to purchase goods and services from companies that operate with social and environmental mindfulness. However, many consumers struggle to sort through what’s greenwash and what’s real and make sound decisions around how to maximize their purchasing power for positive impact.

Sustainability is a complex, highly technical language that can be hard for an everyday customer to understand. Digesting the intricacies of topics such as material health, circular economy, carbon removal, etc. often requires a level of expertise that surpasses everyday understanding.

So how does a company make sustainability simple enough for the everyday consumer to understand without sacrificing fundamental pieces of the puzzle?

I believe that the first step to addressing this disconnect is for green teams to expand their rosters to include customer-facing specialists. These team members can serve as translators that bring a company’s sustainability mission to life by telling stories of real impact, backed by third-party-verified transparency and communicated at honest scale.

These specialists act as hybrids who understand the science, but also can make the metrics and reporting tangible and fathomable. They are adept storytellers and brand ambassadors who intertwine the emotional and quantitative elements of sustainability to paint a picture of shared vision, partnership and impact for a customer. They serve as two-way channels who can simultaneously keep a pulse on the market to inform their company of customer needs while effectively disseminating clear messages to the marketplace based upon these discovered needs.

For more than three years, I helped fill this gap for the flooring company Interface. I loved this work because seeing sustainability make sense or click for a customer is such a rewarding moment. Better yet, when tangible depictions of sustainability contribute to a deepened relationship with a customer or, better yet, a sale, an even stronger case for investing in the development of sustainability initiatives is created.

According to Tony Saracino, sustainability customer engagement manager at Autodesk, "Companies are beginning to see the value of expanding the relationships with their customers beyond being merely transactional. Because I'm not directly selling our product to the customer, I can facilitate completely different kinds of conversations, adding value as a subject matter expert or adviser. This enables me to craft unique solutions on a customer's nuanced project, opening their eyes to new opportunities to expand their services."

I believe that this partnership-based approach helps establish trust while simultaneously demonstrating a robust, impactful element of a company’s value proposition. Tracy Backus, director of sustainable programs at Teknion, noted: “If manufacturers focus only on the transaction, they act not as partners, but only as suppliers." An opportunity is indeed missed when companies do not find ways to connect more intimately and purposefully with the customer.

In summary, adding a dynamic customer-facing specialist to a sustainability team has potential for incredible return on investment as consumer demand for conscious products continues to grow.

George Bandy, chief sustainability officer at Mohawk Group, encapsulates my thoughts best: "As the evolution of mature, sustainably educated consumers populate the workplace, the heart and purpose of your work is essential to demonstrate your value. The customer expects to be inspired, educated and involved in your journey toward a sustainable future."