One of the new retail’s most important realities is that the focus on sustainability is intensifying. This is true in every sector, and in every aspect of consumers’ retail journeys.

You don’t have to search too hard for evidence of this.

It’s also true that marketers appear to be lagging behind their employers or clients – in some cases, substantially so – in building out brand marketing to keep up with the demand for sustainability from product origin to point of sale, and beyond.

In fact, the WFA’s 2021 report entitled Marketing and Sustainability: Closing the Gaps suggests that as few as 10% of marketers may have taken sustainability efforts to an advanced level or are even keeping up with their clients’ initiatives.

That ain’t right.

Strangely, almost all marketers believe marketing can “improve the sustainability journey” and most are aware of consumers’ growing insistence that brands demonstrate their ongoing commitments to sustainability, environmental awareness, and green social initiatives.

They’re just not doing much about it.

So what’s the problem? Why the lag, especially in this area? It should be a no-brainer…right?

About That No-Brainer: Not As Obvious As It Looks…

There are those who say that the big push for corporate or brand sustainability is coming from millennials driven by social conscience and green social and political thinking.

They may well be right. Millennials are obviously not alone in terms of support for sustainability, but they’re certainly a significant market force.

Millennials’ impact on markets is enormous, though their advocacy for sustainability may not be quite as real or as altruistic as it might seem at first glance. Their conduct doesn’t necessarily reflect their speech consistently, nor does purpose always drive their choices or brand loyalty.

Their behavior suggests that they sometimes place personal preferences, speed, and convenience ahead of sustainability in online shopping.

However, nobody can deny the impact on retailer thinking of millennials as a market force. Retailers have responded, erring on the side of caution in considering the value of sustainability (and sustainability marketing) over the long term.

They’ve begun to figure out that it doesn’t really matter whether millennials are as really devoted to sustainability as they say they are. It matters only that those millennials believe in their own devotion to a green, eco-friendly future in which corporate sustainability has a big part to play.

And millennials have made clear their general distrust of corporate motives – so both corporate action and the marketing driving it must offer viable solutions.

Not just green hype, not just PR, and not just mere compliance.

The Sustainability Initiative Gap: Marketers Need Not Attend

We have to admit it: we find this aspect of the problem to be incredibly weird.

Is the problem purely corporate or brand-based, or are the marketers doing the lagging? We suspect it’s a bit of both.

From the corporate or brand perspective, it’s like, okay, we’re going to change our corporate direction, our brand story, and everything else we’re doing to target sustainability as a marketable component of our product or service. The changes will affect all our users/consumers, our staff, our management, the general public, regulators, and others.

We want all of them to be involved in our new journey…so let’s not call marketing. They don’t need to be in the loop. We just have to please the “social responsibility” team and the compliance people…

If, as is often the case, the sustainability emphasis lands on protecting a brand’s public face and goodwill, and/or on enforcement issues, marketing gets lost in the process. In fact, marketing departments may actually be excluded from the discussion.

Seriously? You bet.

We know it’s been done that way for a long time, but change is necessary – immediately, if you’re one of those concerned about remaking your brand as a truly sustainable entity.

Sustainability is no longer just a spin point for public relations or compliance.

It’s now a strategic concern brands must weave into their story, their culture, and their processes, and that’s why marketing teams must be involved much more deeply in corporate sustainability initiatives.

Marketers Need Mandates: Sustainability Must Be a Marketing Imperative

There’s a wealth of data demonstrating that brands and corporations are aware of the importance of sustainability as a corporate priority or brand attribute in 2021. It will drive engagement, conversions, and revenues, and it will figure prominently in brand storytelling.

All of which means that marketing departments and agencies should be involved up to their necks in every sustainability initiative their employers and clients undertake.

CSR (corporate social responsibility) and compliance requirements are like bedrock – foundation elements on which brands and companies can build real sustainability, and from which effective marketing of meaningful initiatives can take off.

And none of it can be empty hype because consumer expectations for sustainability are here to stay, and are intensifying.

Marketers strive to develop tactics designed to get consumers to “see / think / do.” The goal is to get users to alter their behavior, and the focus has traditionally been almost exclusively on conversions and repetitions of individual transactions.

Many retail marketers have generally been less concerned with changing consumers’ thinking and behavior over the long term, and more concerned with “one transaction” and the related gratification consumers are traditionally assumed to want each time they visit a retail site.

In fact, some marketers may actually be apprehensive about devising strategies that may fall prey to management or shareholder anxieties over green changes. Nobody wants responsibility for initiatives that fail to meet shoppers’ sustainability expectations or come with high price tags.

News flash, in case it’s not already obvious: those days are waning quickly, and the reluctance to step up won’t serve anyone for much longer.

In an April 22, 2021 opinion post over at The Drum, Deutsch New York’s Corey Newman makes it clear:

The truth is that marketers haven’t pushed sustainability to the forefront of their brand and messaging strategies, and when they do, it tends to be self-congratulatory.

Newman’s reasoning is that too many marketers still aren’t getting that advocating for sustainability can build revenues, or they don’t actually believe in the purported sustainability of the products they’re marketing. He suspects many marketers are worried about being wrong in choosing a sustainability outcome to market that will strike a sufficiently powerful chord with their brands’ or clients’ customer bases.

Online consumers are increasingly making purchase decisions based on purpose, and they’re less dissuaded by value-for-money considerations than in the past.

That leaves marketers, their employers and their clients with no choice.

Sustainability is Sustainable: It’s Not Going Away

There’s a golden opportunity here – more than one, actually – for marketing agencies, in-house marketing teams, and the brands they represent.

It’s a leadership opportunity that will let marketers and brands take the forefront in helping the larger business community to define sustainability goals and implement initiatives as consumer sensibilities continue to evolve in the new retail.

Earlier this year, the Center for Sustainability and Excellence published a list of the sustainability trends it saw as critical for 2021. We won’t repeat the entire list here, but there are a few trends we think are worth noting as we enter the second half of the year.

  • The technologically supported reduction and elimination of waste and an increasing focus on the use of sustainable materials as interest in (and the commitment to) a circular economy grows.
  • Increasing reliance on formal ESG considerations in the creation of access to capital and the regulation of related corporate conduct.
  • Greater transparency regarding the disclosure of environmental and brand-related climate change risks.
  • Frenetic rethinking of sustainability as it relates to a host of supply-chain issues across industries and sectors, and now extends to aspects of production processes that haven’t received sufficient consideration in the past. Regulation-driven ESG standards relating to supply-chain issues will likely expand and become increasingly pervasive.

These trends, and the research on which they rest, can form the basis for brand reviews of sustainability strategy in every area. Such reviews should then lead to significant changes for many brands.

The implementation of the changes should find marketers using relevant data to “lead the charge” for their brands or companies.

If you’re a marketer and you know you’ve been lagging a bit where sustainability is concerned, it’s time to assert yourself on your brand’s behalf.

There may well be a little risk involved, but your options don’t include moving backward or standing still.

Time to commit.

If you’re an e-commerce retailer, you’re probably already feeling the pressure to build sustainability into your brand, your story and your processes. If that’s the case, get your marketing team on board right now, and not as an afterthought.

Then, of course, there’s always us. We’d be happy to talk with you.

If you’d like to know how Purple Dot can help you elevate your sustainability profile, prevent waste, improve your supply-chain management, and increase your revenues, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.