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Of Retailers And Sustainability

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Of Retailers And Sustainability

Retailers and marketers are on the front lines of the long journey to Sustainability. No one connects with the world like we do. No one has so many touchpoints with consumers. No one has more responsibility for making a difference.

In the store people choose, and in the store we find out what really matters to them; here reputations are won and lost; here experiences captivate or don’t; here ideas soar – or crash.

From everything I’ve heard, one conclusion is absolutely clear: Being Responsible about Sustainability is today’s table-stakes. If you can’t bring Responsibility to the game – don’t bother to pull up a chair.

Being Responsible is not enough. We’ll win this one by becoming Inspirational. People are 80% emotion, 20% reason. “Reason leads to conclusions. Emotion leads to action.” We need fewer words, fewer conclusions and more action. We’ll have to attract the heart as well as the head so people want to make the choices that make a difference. This is the most important challenge of our time. The role of business is to make the world a better place for everyone.

Today the idea that business has a key role in our sustainable future is embraced everywhere. But we are all just beginning to learn what sustainability means. The desire for sustainability has to be part of our dream of a better world. About doing the right thing.

  • It’s not just to enhance reputations. Green-washing is the fast track to exposure and humiliation in the market.
  • It’s not just to match the claims of competitors.
  • It’s not just to give consumers what they want.
  • It’s not even to please Wal-Mart! No one comes first by second guessing. Do the right thing because that is the way you want to live, that is who you are, that is what you dream about. It’s not about selling more stuff. It’s about selling the right stuff.

People worry about sustainability in the abstract, but they don’t know what to do about it. Is this product natural or organic? Fair trade or local? Approved, certified, standardized? Sustainability’s got more categories than breakfast cereals! Sustainability is something you read about, rather than do anything about. It sounds like something committees and academic journals get into – not a Mom shopping for her family.

People don’t sustain their families. They love and protect them. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. But who cares about sustainability depends on the research you look at.

87% of American consumers say they are ‘seriously concerned about the environment. – Gfk Roper Green Gauge (2007)

The green movement is growing and 35 million Americans are True Greens. – Mintel (2007)

BUT: Seven in ten Americans believe that when companies call a product ‘green’ it is usually just a marketing tactic. – Ipsos Reid

My experience? What people tell the research vampires and what they take off the shelf can be very different. Beware of the Vampire Version. Let’s start low. If just 10-15% of shoppers make their choices based on sustainability, that is massively significant if everything else is at parity. And increasingly, everything else is at parity.

Our challenge as sustainable enterprises is to:

  • Inspire consumers to make sustainable choices.
  • Be clear about what those choices are.
  • Make doing the right thing fun, happy, engaging, useful, compelling.
  • Convince them to convince their families and friends to take personal, sustained action. The reality is that:
    -Agreeing on environmental standards is Responsible. Al Gore taking them to the world is Inspirational.
    -Fighting world poverty is Responsible. Joining micro-loan communities like Kiva is Inspirational.
    Working for a company that is liked and admired is Responsible. Getting involved with a company that wants to change the world is Inspirational.

What do human beings need? Great stories. Compelling icons. Passion. Personality. Emotion. We have to stop talking about problems to be solved, and start talking about full and abundant lives to be lived. Imagine a world where retailers connect shopping with restoring the planet and communities. Where every purchase is meaningful because shopping well meant doing good.

Hear it in Wal-Mart’s new line “Save Money. Live Better.” It’s And / And.

IDEA: Take a deep breath. Decide on your Top 100 products that can help restore the planet. Group them together at the front of the store in a beautiful, evocative display. Change the line-up as your suppliers change. But no more than 100. Make it public. Make it competitive.

Doing things right is Responsible. Doing the right thing is Inspirational.

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1 Comment

Levy on March 04th, 2008 said

Hi all,

As I was searching around for a good conversation – not expecting much – I found what appears to be a body double. I’m into reputation strategy and organization development so your swipe at my prize caught my attention.

But after digesting the piece I get the point – reputation as a prize is not the issue – it is the firm (retailers) getting into the passion of celebrating their contribution to existence that counts. That if the only reason they are claiming or contributing to “green” is to build up points – well – now I know what green washing means. So thanks for the education.

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