Too late to shop green

Consumers, fed up with what they perceive as “business as usual” (companies polluting, emitting carbon and exploiting natural resources), are calling for an overhaul of the industrial system: 65% of consumers say the environment should take priority over economic growth, versus 30% who say the opposite. Urgency is amplified for consumers when they witness the impact of climate change on local and global scales, and as they are reminded of the dwindling amount of time left to reverse the effects of climate change.

But marketing leaders are operating under the (outdated) assumptions that came into focus back in 2006, when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth captured the public’s attention and focused it on climate change. Green messaging was a safe and effective way to resonate with consumers’ shopping habits at the time, and it continued to be for at least a decade. Now, however, in the midst of a sentiment shift that points toward a consumer demand for immediate government and corporate action on climate change, green messaging alone is likely to be perceived as tone deaf.

Green marketing messages that call for consumers to personally make changes will fare even worse. Such messages appear to shift responsibility away from corporations at a time when consumers are less likely to believe that individual choices alone can make headway against climate change. Even more risky to brands than the fallout from offensive messaging is the small but loud contingent of consumers who will not wait for companies to take timely and meaningful climate action.

The degree to which marketers can identify opportunities for their brands amid this hastening consumer imperative will depend on the parent company’s readiness to adhere to a maturity model for a green strategy.

Consumers heap blame on corporations and government

In past years, consumers saw more potential in individual actions to reduce environmental harm. Brands benefited from this widespread cultural belief by encouraging people to leverage these individual behaviours through acts of consumerism, such as purchasing from brands that purport to take up the environmental cause.

However, consumers today have grown disillusioned about the real significance of personal actions in combating climate change. In the US, consumers feel that corporations have the means and the motive to pollute if it allows them to achieve their bottom line. In the UK, consumers blame government much more than corporations as they believe the UK government has the regulatory power to set the boundaries for corporations (and for individuals).

Consumers see governmental regulation as a last, best hope and that the only significant way to undo damage is through systemic change. Climate-concerned consumers see government as the most responsible and effective party to take on climate change by forcing corporations to adhere to regulations.

The marketer’s toolkit

For consumers, the threat of climate change is real, urgent and mounting, and they’re mobilising against entities they see as the biggest contributors to the problem. In order to survive the onslaught of public pressure to change business practices, marketers within organisations big and small must convey the same urgency and planet-over-profit expectations that animate their consumer targets.

For starters, that means moving away from individual-action-oriented green messaging, but not all marketers will face the same challenges when it comes to meeting consumer expectations for brand behaviour. The best course of action will vary depending on the readiness and capacity of the organisation to commit to a sustainability overhaul. Marketers must determine their organisation’s current level of maturity in terms of climate initiative readiness, then focus their efforts accordingly.

To do this, Gartner recommends that marketers:

  • Take the lead in advocating for internal alignment on green: Advocate for consumers within the organisation by forming internal teams across various business units that are committed to identifying opportunities to improve sustainability practices. These teams should incorporate colleagues from supply chain, sourcing, production, manufacturing, packaging and shipping. Team members should audit operations as a group in order to identify issues that make the brand vulnerable to consumer criticism. As well as, pushing for CEO buy-in by leveraging the public declarations of green commitment made by other CEOs. Without internal alignment, brand messaging and initiatives appear insincere and poorly thought-out.

  • Tell consumers about your organisation’s internal green strategy: Consumers may be cynical about green proclamations and messaging, but once an organisation has internal processes and stakeholders aligned, it can communicate green strategies and initiatives with confidence. This is the time for innovative messaging around corporate shifts and product changes. From participating in consumer-organised climate strikes to touting waste reduction efforts, brands have many available communication pathways.

  • Show consumers the results of your green strategy: Consumers feel that their individual choices alone don’t make much of an impact – especially compared to the potential impact of corporations. They also don’t think corporations will take timely and meaningful action to combat climate change. This creates a large white space for brands to prove consumers wrong. Once an organisation is fully committed to prioritising a green strategy, it can start to show consumers how the plan is being implemented.

  • Boldly lobby on behalf of consumers’ green demands: Consumers turn to the cudgel of governmental regulation because they don’t believe corporations will make necessary changes on their own. Help them police the industry by lobbying for systemic overhauls via political means. Only corporations that have already demonstrated legitimate and effective climate-aware changes to their products and structures are in a position to lobby politically for regulations on carbon emissions, pollution and other objectives without risking brand damage from claims of hypocrisy.

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