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Whether or not consumers are acquainted with the term "sustainability" (and most consumers today are familiar with it) or can supply a formal definition for it, we find that they often point to words and phrases that reference responsibility and doing the right thing. The notion of responsibility underscores the idea of connectedness and addresses consumer beliefs that the right thing in one area has effects in other areas. Consumers say today that for something to be truly responsible in one way, it should not cause great detriment in another.

We know that the meaning of sustainability has evolved well beyond living green and saving the earth. The contemporary sustainability mindset involves a greater awareness of practices and products beyond sustainable attributes, including those perceived to impact the greater social and economic good. The view of responsibility as doing the right thing has particular resonance with consumers in that it symbolizes an underlying value that guides their views about sustainability. As a value-laden ideal, responsibility provides a more meaningful call to action for all those in society — consumers, businesses, and governments alike — to participate in the greater good.

Consumers say they have trouble identifying companies that are sustainable. That makes it particularly important for manufacturers and others to clearly and shrewdly communicate their sustainability efforts. They should, for example, use animal-welfare labels and other certifications, share the health benefits of their products, and talk about how they are working to benefit the environment and caring for their workers.

Some companies, however, are reticent about touting sustainability efforts, worried they will be criticized as imperfect. We believe that while the die-hard, "core" consumers might call them out for imperfections, most people just want the information. It's more important to convey that you are trying — with goals and measurements — than to be perfect.

Consumers want to have faith in companies whose values match their own, a fit that can happen only if those values are communicated. The communication should be straightforward so that shoppers can quickly and easily understand how buying a particular product will make a difference; it is important to avoid preaching or even trying to educate on complex issues.

What the sustainability consumers want to see varies, depending on the product. For example, in the meat category, animal welfare is the most important consideration. For cold cereals, minimal packaging and natural growing practices are key.

Making Sustainability Efforts Transparent

How to talk about a company’s efforts is not easily generalizable, because expectations and what is credible and relevant differ across categories and even across brands within categories. A category leader will have different opportunities and obstacles than will a smaller player. Large companies can leverage their size to emphasize their ability to have greater impact in the sustainability issues most pertinent to their category.

According to our Sustainability 2017 report, openness and honesty are becoming the currency of trust for consumers who care about sustainability. They want to see corporate responsibility efforts that indicate an authentic commitment to ethical action — especially on-pack.

Transparency is particularly key for retailers, whom consumers view as arbiters of sustainability standards and curators of sustainable products. Retailer context thus makes a big difference in building trust with sustainability consumers.

General guidelines can serve as thought starters for companies on their sustainability journey:

  • Know your customer base. How committed to sustainable practices are they? Which age cohort do you target? What do they expect from your category, your company? Should you talk about environmental efforts, economic or social practices?
  • Tie the more abstract benefits of sustainability back to personal benefits. How will your sustainable practices impact product quality, consumers’ health, convenience, their pocketbook?
  • Make it easy to find information on your website, your Facebook page, your package, or signage
  • Keep the language simple. Consumers do not know as much as you do and most are only looking for basic assurance that your company has sustainable practices built into its policies
  • Tell stories. It’s easier for consumers to relate to an actual event or human outcome than dry facts and statistics

For the most in-depth insights, information, and implications:

Sustainability 2019 will provide a thorough understanding of what consumers are looking for now, what issues are on the horizon, and how the sustainability mindset and marketplace have changed over the years. Amid ever-increasing consumer expectations for transparency and ethical behavior, Sustainability 2019 will offer CPG companies, retailers and restaurants key learnings on consumer needs and resulting opportunities.