Why you should stop selling sustainability

Close-up of Nike Flyknit shoe
Performance, not sustainability, was the selling point for Nike's Flyknit shoes. The use of knitted fabrics has helped to reduce waste by millions of pounds since 2012.

Telling you not to try selling sustainability might sound strange coming from a woman who has grown a successful global business from scratch on doing just that. Sustainability communications is big business; increasingly a brand without a sustainability platform looks behind the curve. But we should be asking ourselves: Is selling sustainability actually good business?

Although I’ve been working under the "sustainability communications" banner for more than a decade, in that time I’ve chosen my messages carefully. Only a few audiences, mainly business and government, have been interested in buying or deciding based purely on sustainability criteria. To everyone else I sell something much more powerful. I sell better value, more meaning and standing up for what matters. Because most of us, most of the time, aren’t looking for a lecture.

Futerra has even gone one step further — we’ve dropped "sustainability" from our company name. We’re now a "change agency" working on the most exciting, challenging and fascinating issues of today.  

As a newly minted change agency, Futerra has been working closely with BSR for the past few years quietly dismantling the truisms and accepted wisdom on marketing, messaging and engagement on sustainability (PDF).

Our joint working group (including McDonalds, AT&T, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson and eBay) reached out to Stanford University to measure the impact of these changes we’ve started. All this work has generated some breakthrough insights into what does sell and what doesn’t.

We’ve identified that bad sustainability communications comes in two main flavors:

1. Egotistic PR

This is corporate reputation communications, and not particularity effective at that. Born from a desperate desire for sustainability efforts to be noticed and validated by stakeholders. This flavor is a result of an inadequate business case for the sustainability work in the first place, which generates fear that without external recognition the internal programs won’t be valued. Symptoms of egotistic PR include unread press releases, unvisited corporate websites and the boring first five slides of conference speeches. 

2. Evangelical marketing

This is an attempt to convert consumers into caring, which can feel distinctly weird to people when coming from corporates. These campaigns spend more time making the case for sustainability than offering the consumer any product or service solutions. These campaigns often lurk online, with lengthy corporate videos exhorting people to care or glorifying idealized nature. Or stunts showing how many elephants' worth of carbon or Empire State Buildings of waste we create each year. Big global conferences such as COP21 are particularly prone to corporates becoming evangelicals. 

Trying to sell sustainability in this way costs. Time, resources and the internal reputation of sustainability can all be damaged by communications that don’t generate any tangible advantage for the business. Thankfully, many companies have moved past egotistic or evangelical communications   and into the green pastures of effective engagement.

Instead, here's what good communications looks, feels and sounds like:

Breakthrough benefits

This is when you sell a new functional improvement to products and services. This is what sustainability should be all about  making better things. When you have a breakthrough improvement that has been driven by sustainable thinking, then you can just sell the improvement. Nike’s Flyknit shoes is the stand-out example of this. When — by radically reducing resource inputs — the result is a higher performing product, then sell the high performance. 

Purposeful service

This is when your business model delivers emotional value and uplift. This should never be boasting about your performance, but instead glorifying your audience for what they’ve achieved. Companies such as Natura, Honest and Patagonia carved this approach out. These are feel-good brands celebrating their customers for being awesome people (with a serving of sustainability on the side). 

Standing up

This is when you align with consumers on important issues. Not entreating consumers to care but standing up to be counted on issues that matter. Offering a sense of belonging, sharing and willingness to join hard debates with a strong point of view. In its best form, standing up means breaking ranks on mainstream thinking: Ikea acknowledging we’ve reached "peak stuff," the rainbows of corporate support for marriage equality or Chipotle banning guns from restaurants. Over half of Americans believe corporations should engage in dialogue surrounding social-political issues. 

I'm at the GreenBiz 16 conference delving deeper into how to use this new thinking. The good way to sell is harder to do, and the bad way is tempting. But if we’re to reach a sustainable future, we need to stop selling sustainability.