Sustainability no longer a niche proposition

By Nikki Wright

From the mass discrediting of the banking industry, to the collapse of poorly constructed and run factories that supply cheap clothing to western countries, to the dispute over dairying and its impact on the environment, it seems as though more and more people are willing to look behind the great balance sheet successes and question exactly who pays for many of the conveniences we enjoy.

While many still don't care enough to change their consumption habits, surveys show that an increasing number do.   More and more, in fact, as trust is eroded. After horse meat from Eastern Europe was found in British supermarket convenience food products, meat consumption across the UK and Europe has dropped and is unlikely to return to previous levels.

And what this means for the business behind a brand is that sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are no longer niche propositions for a smattering of 'green' brands.  Surveys - such as one of the most recent from Colmar Brunton called "Better Business Report 2013" -  show unequivocally that these attributes are a 'must have' for a growing number of consumers.

First, the numbers.  Colmar Brunton asked 1,000 Kiwis in August about their attitudes and behaviours towards sustainability - not just self-confessed 'greenies', but a cross-section of the community at large.   Certainly it is true that there is still quite a gulf between what people say they do - buy free-range eggs, made-in-New Zealand clothing, GE-free consumables - and what they actually do.

But for business, it should be enough of a warning that a majority of New Zealanders aspire to support more sustainable brands, even if cost, time, convenience and so forth currently render them unable to.   It should be enough to know, for example, that almost 65 per cent consider Brand New Zealand a market advantage, that 80 per cent want to know exactly where their food comes from, that a distinct majority favour regional GE-free zones and extending marine reserves and dislike fracking and mining on DOC land.

Almost 60 per cent agree that 100 per cent Pure New Zealand is a vision worth aspiring too - but believe we need to do more 'walking the talk' to get there.

Consumers have a sense of responsibility and it can be helped or hindered by what companies do - they want affordable, sustainable products that are genuinely safe and good for the surrounds, and they want to trust that retailers and manufacturers treat their environments, their staff and suppliers, and their consumers, openly, honestly and ethically.

There are certain things businesses can do, certain positions and philosophies they can adopt, that will engender the type of trust a consumer really wants to have in his or her favourite brand.  These 'positions' aren't just there in times of trouble or as a reaction to crisis - they allow the company to have a voice of authority in this vitally important area of business and give the consumer confidence that the company has integrity when the proverbial hits the fan.

One of the keys to ensuring a brand encapsulates corporate social responsibility is that sustainability practises must be developed and entrenched - and they must align with brand values.  And this has to be a central strategy, not a side issue or languishing in a folder at the back of a dusty cupboard.

Sustainable supply chain management - and the ability to prove it at a moment's notice - is another valuable prong, as is getting buy-in from everyone in the company through open conversation around where everyone is headed in the CSR space.

Crucially, there is always more room for honesty and clarity around how companies communicate and what they are communicating.  And that's what a great PR firm can offer, of course. At Wright, we've been in the CSR space for a long time. We worked with the very first, pioneering companies that wanted to build their integrity and reliability (and communicate it!), and we are now seeing companies from across the spectrum come to us for advice on how to incorporate these very important changes into their company's 'DNA'.

Important, because any company that wants to connect with consumers with trust and integrity needs to 'walk the talk' - just like the entire country does, according to those surveyed by Colmar Brunton.  There is no time to lose: the future, as they say, is now.

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