Engaging consumers in your sustainability story—or not

By Deirdre Robert

Posted on Nov. 30, 2010. Listed in:

Businesses are failing to engage consumers in their sustainability story. That’s one of the main points taken from Colmar Brunton’s general manager Jacqueline Ireland, in her presentation at yesterdays Natural Step’s 'Co-creating the future’ conference, held in Auckland’s Floating Pavilion.

Natural Step executive director and senior advisor Simon Harvey kicked the proceedings off by challenging the group of business, local government and education leaders to ask the question: “How do we redesign what we have to fit into the environment, so that we can achieve the goals we want to?” 

When it was Ireland’s turn to take to the stage, Ireland made the point that only three percent of consumers say businesses give out enough information on their social and environmental behaviours. The findings come as part of Colmar Brunton’s Better Business; Better World— an investigation into all things sustainable from the consumers’ point of view, captured over surveys in 2009 and 2010 that canvas the views of 2,500 New Zealanders each year. 

The perceived lack of sustainability stories is perhaps evidenced by the fact that 72 percent of consumers surveyed could not name any brand that they associated with sustainable practice. But of those who could name sustainable brands, ecostore, Toyota, Air New Zealand and Meridian Energy featured most prominently. 

Interestingly, only 1 in 10 surveyed say they feel well informed about sustainability, while 9 in 10 say they’d like more information on sustainability, and 60 percent agree that the most innovative and progressive businesses take sustainability seriously. 

And while consumers don’t want to pay more for sustainable goods and services, Ireland says they’d love to buy them, which is why price is so important. There is also a growing appreciation that sustainable products and services are just as good as others, but only five percent say they’ll pay more for premium sustainable products. 

“Consumers are becoming much more value conscious in their purchase decision,” says Ireland. 

Looking beyond the realm of products, the surveys also evaluated the value of corporate social and environmental practices. It found that 2 out of every 3 consumers prefer to buy from environmentally and socially responsible businesses. Ireland says consumers also have high expectations of businesses to be ethical in regards to the treatment of their customers, employees and the environment. 

And what of the recession? Ireland says the findings over the two surveys show the recession has not impacted on attitudes and behaviours of consumers in regards to sustainability. 

When it came to best practice examples of international businesses engaging in sustainability, Ireland held up UK retailer Marks & Spencer’s sustainability plan—Plan A—as one of the best. 

Ireland says commitment to sustainability needs to be at the heart of the business. “It needs to a be part of your business. It needs to be a part of your DNA.”

Image: Flickr - gualtiero

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