Don’t Play Catch-up with Sustainability

Companies that make investments in sustainability as an act of continuous improvement long before they are required to do so will ultimately be the winners.

by Melinda Goodman

According to a recent survey by the International Food Insight Council, 59% of consumers think their food choices have an impact on the environment. However, price still primarily influences these consumers’ purchasing decisions. So why make significant investments in sustainability programs that consumers say they want, but aren’t willing to pay for? For the same reasons that we made investments in food safety: because it’s the right thing to do, and innovation is the path to progress.

Sustainability isn’t a winner-take-all proposition. It can certainly have competitive advantages over the short run with the right customers, but likely the biggest wins will come internally with advances or improvements in soil health, waste reduction, water and energy savings.

Henry Ford once famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, a faster horse.” In the era of sustainability, consumers generally know they want businesses to do better. Some consumers may be able to articulate their needs such as recyclable packaging, more humane treatment of animals and better conditions for workers. In other cases, consumers can’t articulate what sustainability entails.

Leading companies are exploring innovation, but what’s exciting is not just the success they are finding, but the big ideas they are creating. Some ideas might work, some might not be sustainable, but the learnings can be applied across the industry to scalable initiatives. Here are a few of those big ideas.

  • Switzerland is installing mini solar panels within the gaps in railways to create solar farms.
  • Husqvarna has developed an autonomous mower with a rewilding mode to help homeowners set aside 10% of their yard for pollinators.
  • Oatly’s F.A.R.M. (Future Agriculture Renovation Movement) is committed to global regenerative agriculture.
  • Floating Farm Rotterdam has proven that a dairy can exist in an urban environment, and it can be an entirely circular ecosystem. Up next – poultry, leafy greens and herbs.

The sustainable work that companies are doing is sometimes radical but often simplistic: a solution born out of necessity that takes time and technology to solve. Sinclair, the leader in PLU stickers, has been working to create a truly compostable sticker since 2000. Today, a combination of materials and new adhesion methods has made it a reality.

In the UK, some Mars bars are now in paper packaging as part of tests to reduce single-use plastic and create a recyclable alternative. Additional packaging changeovers are occurring in Australia and New Zealand, and the company expects to reduce plastic use by 360 metric tons. These changes are important when the Ocean Conservancy reports that food wrappers from candy, chips and other snacks are the top item collected from oceans.

Consumers frequently complain about the plastic packaging used for food. In fact, recyclable packaging is the No. 1 signal consumers identify as a sign that a company is making an effort towards sustainability. With almost 80 million tons of packaging waste generated each year in the United States, there’s no doubt recyclable and compostable packaging would make a difference.

Today’s consumers, particularly millennials and Gen Z, are increasingly drawn to brands that prioritize sustainable practices that align with their personal values and concerns about environmental impact, social responsibility and ethical sourcing, even if they aren’t willing to pay for them. For brands, implementing sustainability practices is an expectation for the greater good. So, what’s in it for you?

1. Meeting Consumer Expectations: Growing consumer awareness and concerns about climate change, deforestation, food waste and other environmental issues have led to consumer expectations of brands to demonstrate a genuine commitment to sustainability. Brands that adopt sustainable practices are perceived as trustworthy, earning consumer respect and loyalty.

2. Becoming an Environmental Steward: Reducing carbon emissions, conserving water resources and minimizing waste aren’t just good for consumers, they are good for companies, minimizing their ecological footprint and helping to protect the planet.

3. Championing Ethical Sourcing and Workforce Development: Being a sustainable company isn’t just about caring for the environment, it’s also about caring for people. Consumers are increasingly concerned about social justice, fair labor and worker welfare. All companies can benefit from a skilled labor force that is treated well and paid fairly. Workers are the backbone of every company and maintaining a well-staffed organization of loyal and trained workers will pay dividends in every aspect of business.

4. Supporting Health and Wellness: Sustainability often intersects with health and wellness. Brands that prioritize production methods, ingredients and inputs that improve the quality and nutritional value of food help consumers align with healthy eating habits.

5. Differentiation and Competitive Advantage: In a crowded marketplace, sustainability initiatives can set a company apart from the crowd. Many of today’s consumers are looking for companies with a genuine commitment to sustainability and transparent communication efforts.

6. Engaging Consumers: Sustainability initiatives evoke strong emotions and often empower consumers to take action. We all want to do good. Brands that actively commit to sustainable practices tap into consumer desire to make a difference aligning values and inspiring loyalty.

7. Positive Reputation: As leaders in sustainability initiatives, companies get to take advantage of the positive recognition and enhanced reputation that comes from their efforts. In the future, sustainability will be the cost of doing business, but today, sustainability is an opportunity.

Maybe Henry Ford’s most important remark was that “The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his business better all the time.” The ultimate reality is that consumers expect companies to take the lead on sustainability because they have the most ability to do so. Companies that make the investments as an act of continuous improvement long before they are required to do so will have time on their side and will be ahead of companies playing catch up — and will ultimately win.

• Melinda Goodman is the president of Full Tilt Marketing.