Companies can avoid becoming a ‘me-too’ business and get ahead of the curve by taking proactive, positive action on sustainability. Engaging customers on this journey – to see how far they are willing to go to support sustainable practices – is a vital part of this process. But some companies may not be keeping up, making flawed assumptions about consumers prioritising price, convenience and aesthetics at any (environmental) cost.
Opportunities to take the sustainable route now go well beyond compliance with environmental regulations and voluntary participation in initiatives such as the Carbon Disclosure Project or any number of certification schemes for sustainable sourcing. Companies would be well-advised to explain the environmental impact of all the decisions they take; especially where it involves a higher price tag, inconveniencing the shopper or compromising on a product’s appearance.
Some of the bigger brands argue that their customers expect them to be doing their best but they don’t need them to shout about it. As a Marks and Spencer spokesperson put it, “customers trust us to do the ‘heavy lifting’ behind the scenes on environmental and social issues”. But this won’t apply to all brands, and certainly not to all sectors. East Coast trains said that increasingly their customers ask them to provide “quantitative evidence” of their commitment to sustainability, such as how much waste they send to landfill and details of their actual carbon footprint.
Similarly, Vauxhall runs a monthly research programme called Pulse of the Market.
“It is very important to know how customers view Vauxhall from an environmental perspective”, a spokesperson explained, “especially as the automotive industry is not necessarily viewed as environmentally responsible. We would like the work we’re doing to reduce CO2 emissions from our cars, and also our efforts to reduce energy and water consumption, to be recognised”.
By informing your customer base of what is possible you’re raising their expectations both of the company, but also of that particular sector as a whole.
So, are companies getting it right on how far customers are willing to go – what they’ll ‘sacrifice’ – to support sustainability?
Pret a Manger’s customer services told me they won’t put doors on their in-store hot cabinets because it “would be inconvenient for customers standing in front of them”. It was not explained whether customers had been asked for their views on this, or if they’d mind being ‘inconvenienced’ when doors reduce energy use and therefore Pret’s CO2 emissions.
Nicki Fisher, Head of Sustainability at Pret, said that they moved to pole-and-line-caught tuna when customers shared their concerns over the by-catch issue, and that it was also customers who encouraged them to put recycling stations in their shops. I hope then that they might consider changing their policy on the hot cabinets. Many Tesco metros now have doors on their chillers, explaining that ‘these doors save enough energy to run over 60,000 dishwasher cycles per year’. And at no apparent cost to their sales.
A major clothing outlet explained to me that they don’t stock organic jeans and T-shirts because they are “too expensive” for their customers. In spring 2011 they introduced an organic T-shirt range, which had a higher price tag than their non-organic counterparts, but they didn’t sell. Were customers aware that organic textiles use no pesticides and have a smaller water footprint, so are much better for the environment? If it is not clear to customers why they’re paying more, you can’t know if they are willing to fork out. As a spokesperson from Vauxhall put it,
“since environmental awareness is creeping up the scale, so electric cars and ultra high efficiency/low CO2 cars are of real interest to a growing number of customers, with price being of less importance”.
Sainsbury’s customer services told me that they have recently moved away from compostable packaging for their organic tomatoes. The reason given was that the material absorbed moisture loss from the tomatoes causing the packaging to look “unsightly”; the implication being that customers wouldn’t buy them for this reason. With ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables being successfully stocked in some major supermarkets last autumn, I ask Sainsbury’s simply to explain to shoppers that blemished compostable packaging does not affect product quality and is a far better alternative to (widely non-recyclable) plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables.
Why wait for companies to seek out your views? Simply ask them to shut their fridge/ hot cabinet doors, to stock organic clothing and to use recyclable or biodegradable packaging. Or anything else you think they should be doing. #AsktheQ pushes for greater transparency on sustainability.