Consumer confusion over sustainability

By Simon Roche

Colmar Brunton's 2015 Better Futures report focuses on consumer behaviour towards socially, environmentally and economically responsible brands.

This year's survey contains some positive signs for businesses that have a strong sustainability focus, but it also highlights areas where improvement is needed.

Here is the bad news: many businesses that have embraced sustainability are struggling to clearly communicate their sustainability story.

The Better Futures survey found 71 per cent of consumers can't name any brand or organisation as a leader in sustainability.

Even more of a concern was the 81 per cent of consumers surveyed who agreed that the way businesses talk about their social and environmental commitment was hard to understand.

This was up from 74 per cent last year, showing that despite the best efforts of many Kiwi businesses to be sustainable, their communication is letting them down.

Having a comprehensive sustainability strategy for your business is not enough on its own to get the attention of consumers.

The story you tell about your sustainability credentials has to be simple, consistent and easy to understand.

The good news is that Kiwis' purchasing behaviour is more influenced by sustainability than ever and Generation Y consumers are even more eco-conscious than other age groups.

A significant majority of consumers say they buy eco-friendly cleaning products (84 per cent) and grow their own fruit and vegetables (77 per cent).  More than half (56 per cent) are considering green energy sources for their home.

Colmar Brunton CEO Jacqueline Farman says sustainable behaviours are now an everyday part of consumers' lives and that's a cue more and more businesses are picking up on and the rest cannot afford to ignore.

"Consumers want to see these values from their own lives reflected in the businesses and brands they deal with.  Sustainability is increasingly influencing purchase behaviour across all 13 market categories we surveyed," Farman said.

Almost one in three consumers across all age groups said their purchasing of Fairtrade, ethical, socially responsible and environmentally friendly products would increase over the next 12 months with Gen Y consumers leading the charge.

They are also prepared to pay a premium for products that fit their values, with 65 per cent of Gen Y consumers willing to spend more for the best organic, sustainable and ethically produced products and brands available.

These results show the potential benefits for businesses who adopt sustainability as a core value.

Embracing sustainability as a business can attract not only customers but workers as well. Three quarters of Kiwis surveyed said it was important to work for a company that is socially and environmentally responsible.

If businesses want guidance on how to improve their sustainability messaging, they should look at the brands that were named as leaders in sustainability.

The top five this year were Eco Store, Meridian, Trade Aid, Whittaker's and Toyota.  Of the five, Wright Communications has worked extensively with both Eco Store and Toyota on their strategic communication.

There are several things businesses can do to sharpen their sustainability programme and improve their communications around this aspect of their business.

These include investing in strategic communications with expert advice, reporting on their sustainability progress, conducting materiality assessments, engaging key stakeholders, certifying and getting independent assurance of their products and services.

But above all else, these businesses are clear in their message and have worked hard to build their reputations as sustainability leaders over a number of years, connecting it with the products and services they provide (for example, Meridian is known for its use of renewable power generation).

They also have positive standing with the public in general, which gives credibility to their sustainability message.

If you want consumers to associate your business with sustainability you should start investing now, because eco-conscious consumers won't wait for you to get your act together.

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