Skip to main content

When to lead with sustainability in consumer communications, and when not to

It’s not always necessary to lead with the ‘S word’, but here’s when you should.

Connecting with consumers on complex sustainability issues isn’t easy. Indeed, it could be the most difficult communication challenge of them all. But for consumer-facing brands, it’s increasingly necessary.

That’s because today’s consumers demand transparency about the sustainability of their products. More than two-thirds consider sustainability when making a purchase and are willing to pay more for products that fit the bill, according to the CGS 2019 Retail and Sustainability Survey. A strong sustainability story also drives brand loyalty, the survey says, and customers that continue to support a brand over time will typically will spend 67 percent more than new customers.

"Today’s consumers care more about sustainability," said Jessica Appelgren, vice president of communications at Impossible Foods, during a recent panel I moderated during the thinkPARALLAX Perspectives event at PCH International in San Francisco, which also included leaders from Allbirds, thredUP and GAP. "People are starting to realize that they have a responsibility as consumers to bring sustainability to the forefront, and they’re acting upon it."

About the ‘S-word’...

Do we always need to lead with the "S-word" when communicating to consumers on sustainability?

"Sustainability took the backseat to comfort and design," said Hana Kajimura, head of sustainability at Allbirds, when discussing the footwear company’s communication strategy.

Although sustainability is at the core of what Allbirds does, the company believes that sustainability, comfort and design are not mutually exclusive — indeed, its products address all three. 

Allbirds is also trying to leverage its growing market share and voice for good, Kajimura added.

Erin Wallace, brand director at thredUP, concurred that leading with a sustainability message isn’t always necessary. While the fashion resale company was founded to address the world’s growing textile waste problem by "encouraging a more collective, sharing economy," thredUp’s communications often lead with the simple story of how fun it is to thrift.

Consumers aren’t always aware that they do care about sustainability. Brands must balance varying levels of customer sustainability understanding.
The "S-word" isn’t even used in thredUP’s recent announcement that it raised $175 million and partnered with brick-and-mortar retailers Macy’s and J.C. Penney. And that’s OK, according to Wallace, as the company’s goal is to spur as many people as possible to buy secondhand.

"There’s a lot of competition for space in a retail store," said Alice Hartley, senior manager of sustainable innovation at Gap Inc. "Sustainability needs to be more than a sound bite. You need to communicate where you can have depth."

When sustainability is an inherent part of the action a brand wants consumers to take, it’s not always necessary to lead with it in storytelling, the panelists said.

Engagement through education

Sustainability’s sheer complexity remains a chief communication challenge for brands. A thorough understanding requires familiarity with a laundry list of topics, from ecology and technology to sociology and economics, among others.

"Consumers aren’t always aware that they do care about sustainability," Gap’s Hartley said. "Brands must balance varying levels of customer sustainability understanding."

At times, consumers may not even realize that something they care strongly about — such as strong local communities — even counts as a corporate sustainability issue.

Are brands responsible for educating consumers about sustainability? Maybe, maybe not. But brands that do can glean an advantage, the panelists said. 

"Brands have a role in making sustainability consumer-friendly," Hartley added.

One way Gap is working to do this is through the Heart Earth sustainability platform. Launched by its sub-brand, Old Navy, this platform educates and engages consumers on the company’s sustainability goals, as well as progress toward achieving them.

People are focusing on the certification of clothing and products when they’re out making consumer decisions.
Of course, global brands face varying levels of consumer sustainability sophistication. During the panel, Kajimura mentioned that as Allbirds has moved into the European market it has faced a much more advanced sustainability conversation. Consumers and buyers demand higher levels of information about sustainability programs and initiatives there than those in the United States and elsewhere, she said.

The future of sustainability communications

The world of corporate sustainability has evolved significantly in the past decade alone — what will it look like in five or 10 more?

"We went through the ‘Inconvenient Truth phase,’ scaring consumers about sustainability,” said Impossible Foods’ Appelgren. “I’d love to see them organize and mobilize around issues, and feel empowered."

Indeed, research shows that scaring people into caring about the climate crisis doesn’t work. While 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, only around 40 percent think "it will harm me personally," according to a 2018 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Gap’s Hartley is hopeful that we’ll see consumer sophistication about sustainability issues increase even further.

"I hope people have more knowledge and understanding around the conversation of sustainability," she said. "People are focusing on the certification of clothing and products when they’re out making consumer decisions."

Allbirds’ Kajimura said she hopes sustainability communicators will learn to take more calculated risks.

"We should continue to push in sustainability communications, even if the customers don’t engage. We need to challenge ourselves to tell the story differently," she said.

With the end goal of creating positive impact through products and services, purpose-driven brands don’t always need to lead with sustainability. But to earn relevance and engage consumers, they must be willing to explore different avenues for creating compelling narratives that inspire action.

More on this topic