Sustainability is not only good business – it’s a growth strategy
Consumers are willing, but confused about what they can do for the planet. That’s an opportunity, says IBM’s UK chief executive
guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 November 2011 14.21 GMT
IBM’s Watson computing system alongside the ‘smarter planet’ logo. The company has recently held a sustainability summit bringing together some of the biggest companies in the UK. Photograph: Ben Hider/Getty Images
Leading companies know that sustainability is good business. No longer a practice done for legal or charitable reasons, it’s a growth strategy.
Despite many positive actions by companies, consumers still seem confused. A recent YouGov survey found that although 73% of British citizens consider sustainable living to be important to them, more than a third admit being confused about what they should, or shouldn’t do to do more for the planet. The survey highlights a willingness from consumers to become more sustainable and a clear opportunity for businesses to start inspiring behaviour change and get sustainable living accepted by the mainstream.
Collaboration is key
No organisation can do this alone and collaborative approaches are needed to discover ways for businesses to empower consumers to do more with less, while also providing real value back to business.
The need for collaboration was backed up by the YouGov survey. Three in five respondents stated that if companies whose products they already buy came together with a set of ideas to help them live more sustainably, it would make them more inclined to try the idea than if the government suggested it.
However there is no one recipe for a successful sustainability initiative and no quick fix to enlighten the masses. To discuss new ways that businesses can empower consumers to achieve sustainable behaviour change, IBM recently held a sustainability summit bringing together some of the biggest companies in the UK including P&G, Marks & Spencer, Eurostar, Asda, British Gas and Thames Water.
How to influence consumers
The summit discovered over 900 ideas that have the potential to inspire other companies and persuade consumers about the benefits of living a more sustainable life. What became clear is that solely appealing to organisations’ and people’s conscience to drive change on environmental issues is not enough:
• Inspire people and prevent sustainability being seen as worthy or dull. Clear communication is key to educating consumers into making the right choice. Reframe the issue, make it pleasurable and fun and this will catch the consumers attention.
• Talk in a way the consumer can understand and ditch the jargon. Use plain language. Carefully explain the logic underlying new and unfamiliar concepts, underpin everything with a factual as well as a moral and emotional justification and avoid polarising terminology. Then create a common measure and language they will understand, eg “kite mark”, “five-a-day”.
• Incentivise consumers to change behaviour. Add value, not cost, reward positive behaviour and keep it simple, for example rewards for recycling, no VAT on repairs, recognition of “heroes”, “green knights”.
• Engage with employees so that they can engage with consumers. Employees are the agents for change. Connecting efforts internally with those who touch customers leads to a more resilient and robust programme with greater longevity and more significant results.
• Be an authentic company and mean what you say. Appropriate and diverse role models and institutions are far more appealing to consumers. They want to know the companies providing the sustainability guidance are also taking their own advice and striving to be more sustainable across their entire business.
• Build educational programmes to encourage behaviour change, such as freecycle education for children, a broad programme of education encouraging children to influence their parents, and make better links in understanding of the real cost of the choices we make.
• Give consumers the tools to help them be more sustainable. Practical help alongside education goes a long way. For example providing free postbags for clothes to be sent off, more collection points, and discounts for old products.
Barriers to change
Central to all these ideas is a warning – don’t get more than one step ahead of the customer or you might lose them. There are still many barriers to change that companies continue to battle against. Consumers are still finding it hard to directly relate to the issue of sustainability and in the current age of throw away consumerism many people will need to find the “what’s in it for me?” factor before they engage.
Whatever industry you are in, you need to put yourself at that cross-section which touches the different economic, social and environmental aspects of your footprint and believe in the principle of shared value. This involves creating economic value for your business while at the same time creating value for society by addressing its needs and challenges and also delivering lasting environmental benefit.
Society has constantly adapted to dramatic shifts in how it operates. Those organisations that embrace those shifts and continuously evolve will thrive now and in the future, delivering better economic, social and environmental outcomes for all.
Stephen Leonard is chief executive of IBM UK and Ireland
The IBM Summit 2011: Start Now, Start Today was organised by IBM, the Marketing Society and Start, a charitable initiative inspired by the Prince of Wales. Click here to download the full results.