Few words get more buzz now than “sustainability.” Often a word can be so widely used, so suddenly, that the meaning becomes clouded. With that in mind, let’s take a moment to clarify what precisely we mean when we talk about corporate sustainability:
“Corporate sustainability is an approach aiming to create long-term stakeholder value through the implementation of a business strategy that focuses on the ethical, social, environmental, cultural, and economic dimensions of doing business. The strategies created are intended to foster longevity, transparency, and proper employee development within business organizations.”1
With that definition in mind, let’s look at why sustainability matters, and what every organization should do about it moving forward.
Sustainability Matters, Whatever the Size of Your Business
Culturally we have moved from a “winner takes all” cutthroat mentality to a more holistic corporate approach, not least because corporate power is recognized as a major driver of global trends, including the widely accepted practical and even existential risks from climate change.
This isn’t conjecture. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a major company without a sustainability plan. Organizations have Chief Sustainability Officers, signifying a sea-change in organizational structure and how important sustainability is perceived to be. But if you’re an entrepreneur running a small business, this might seem beyond your pay grade. You’re worried about making payroll, marketing costs, and all the things it takes to make a business sustainable in the immediate sense – the bottom line, in other words.
Nevertheless it’s important now to recognize that the bottom line itself can and should be seen through the lens of sustainable business practices, both in a micro and a macro sense, not only because it’s the right thing to do ethically (you’ll feel good about it) but because consumers value and support companies which can be seen to demonstrably support sustainable practices.
Sustainability is Good Business
Sustainability as it relates to the environment is just good business, at any scale:
“Value and ease of purchase are still the main drivers of purchase decisions, but sustainability is becoming a bigger factor. A 2019 survey led by Hotwire found that 47% of internet users worldwide had ditched products and services from a brand that violated their personal values. Protecting the environment topped that list.”2
Notably the emphasis here is on “protecting the environment,” around which there is effectively zero political tension (in contrast to “climate change,” a phrase that has been politicized). Who doesn’t want to protect the environment? Every business, both authentically and in its approach to marketing, should keep this top of mind. A recent article by GreenBiz (June 2021) offered the following:
- 68% of millennials bought a product with a social or environmental benefit in the past 12 months.
- 87% of consumers will have a more positive image of a company that supports social or environmental issues.
- 88% will be more loyal to a company that supports social or environmental issues.
- 87% would buy a product with a social and environmental benefit if given the opportunity.
- 92% will be more likely to trust a company that supports social or environmental issues.3
Marketing Sustainability Calls for an Organizational “Why”
What motivates Zoomer and Millennial consumers to prefer sustainable business? Earnest belief is there, but social pressure and “shame” are also a factor. Studies show younger consumers by and large want to avoid being seen by their peers as unhealthy and unconscientious.
“Designed in collaboration with a range of partners including CVS Health, IKEA, PepsiCo, Visa and WWF International, this study surveyed 27,000 people across 27 markets to explore their sentiment around healthier, sustainable lifestyles. One takeaway from the research is that globally, younger generations are more likely to feel ashamed (“very often” or “often”) about living lifestyles that are unhealthy and are not environmentally friendly, compared to their older peers.”4
This suggests it’s not enough for an organization to simply pursue sustainable practices – they must be marketed and integrated into a brand’s identity. Consumers want to be seen supporting sustainable organizations. Employees too are motivated by this:
“93 percent of corporate employees under 30 agree that the more socially and environmentally responsible their companies become, the more motivated and loyal they will be as employees.”5
Organizations should have an authentic and clear “why” in terms of sustainable initiatives, make this visible, and integrate this into their identity at every level of communications, both internal and public-facing. It’s the profitable thing to do, the right thing to do, and good business, whether you’re in a Fortune 500 C-Suite or starting a local lawn care business.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_sustainability, 6.23.2021
- https://www.businessinsider.com/sustainability-as-a-value-is-changing-how-consumers-shop, 6.23.2021
- https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesnycouncil/2018/11/21/do-customers-really-care-about-your-environmental-impact/?sh=538c7716240d, 6.24.2021
- https://www.greenbiz.com/article/why-younger-generations-are-more-willing-change-name-sustainability, 6.24.2021