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Explaining Sustainability

‘Only 3% of people set out to find and buy only green products’

Sustainability consultant Alan Best asks whether sustainability influences buyer choice:

CAN a sustainability story improve the sales of your products and services? On recent evidence this would appear to be an uphill battle as it appears that we may have reached a state of consumer apathy and inertia.

This is partly due to the somewhat technical nature of sustainability issues and the difficult challenge of presenting the information in a way that makes somebody want the product because of it. However the way things are marketed these days has long ceased to be about the provision of basic facts about product performance.
Advertisements are instead strong on images designed to appeal to our emotions rather than to impart basic knowledge. A good example is the advertising for cars. Think of those sleek and gleaming objects of desire streaking through mountain passes driven by impossibly beautiful people with fantastic social lives.
The stuff of dreams and fantasy! Flooring advertisements talk of inspiring choices, exciting designs, luxury textures, contemporary architecture, complementing modern interiors etc. etc. This all makes us feel pretty good and upbeat about the designs but not a great deal more knowledgeable about functional performance.
You can find the information on CO2 emissions from the car and the flooring manufacturer’s carbon footprint in the small print. According to a recent Ipsos poll (http://ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=5598) the latter will be of primary interest only to approximately 3% of people who actively set out to find and buy only green products.
How then should we feel about sustainability? We start off on a bit of a downer because the facts are somewhat depressing and we are regularly warned of dire consequences to come. The constant bad news on climate change, superstorms, heatwaves, rising CO2 levels, pollution, toxic chemicals, melting ice caps and drowning polar bears adds up to a pretty bleak outlook.
Getting us to focus on these things is therefore hardly likely to make us putty in the hands of the marketing people. There is also the somewhat tricky issue that the facts are complex and difficult to comprehend and that at times we are given seemingly conflicting information.
According to a recent article in the online magazine ‘Fast Company’ http://www.fastcoexist.com/3015902/6-ways-to-make-brand-sustainability-resonate-with-consumers it is probable that the combination of bewildering language and excessive gloom and doom deters positive consumer behaviour rather than promoting it.
So what we get is a glossing over of the sustainability facts with warm fuzzy images and reassuring words talking up what companies are doing now and how they intend to do to improve things in the future. This is the fertile ground from out of which greenwashing emerged. According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum and Accenture only 28% of people know what terms such as sustainable, green and eco-friendly really mean and around 56% just don’t trust green claims made by major brands.
However, some very good things are happening all around the flooring industry which are genuinely improving the impacts on the environment, on health and on human rights. These stories need to be told and we need to find ways of getting the customer more excited and motivated about the message.
The Ipsos poll mentioned earlier highlights that given the choice almost half of adults are more inclined to buy eco-friendly products and almost 40% would be prepared to pay more for them. Does the inertia that exists stem from the absence of persuasive information presented in positive ways.
Only a small number or consumers read through corporate reports, web sites, press releases and the other conventional channels of communication so all of this expense and effort produces very little return with respect to consumer behaviour. The situation is clearly calling out for a new approach. What we surely have to do is to get with the programme and tune into the emotional appeal of advertising that clearly works for mainstream products.
We need to be helped to dream and to see visions that resonate. What does a vision for a sustainable future and healthy environment look like? How about creating images of a world with more happiness based on people living longer healthier lives, performing more useful long term jobs in a circular economy, improving the lot of others around the world and sustainable prosperity?
These are incredibly upbeat themes for the advertisers to work on and these are the true goals of all of our efforts to improve our impacts on the world. Let’s market better products rather than greener products. Let’s show that developing greener products is a natural extension of our continuous improvement efforts rather than something inflicted on us by regulation.
Every greener product that I have ever worked on has been better in some significant way than the product it replaced. These have included design for recyclability, or use of renewable bio based raw materials or better dyeing technology which reduces pollution or substitution of toxic chemicals. All of these examples have matched or outperformed the technical requirements for the product and few have led to price increases. Let’s use the KISS i.e. Keep It Simple Stupid!
Let us tell the story in truthful, credible and meaningful ways around a simple message that people can understand and get behind. Use of the simple theme ‘Nike builds a better world’ is proving highly effective for them with impressive evidence of increased customer loyalty as a result. Let us focus on the positive and present what we are doing in upbeat ways.
A normal human response to disturbing images of environmental disasters is to change the channel whereas people love to watch events and activities set up in response to them. Think about support for Live Aid and other similar events in response to images of famine. People want to feel empowered to help rather than helpless and if they feel that you are doing worthwhile things they are likely to support you provided that they understand what it is you are doing and what they can do to help you.
Customers love to feel able to make choices and free to act independently. Engaging the customer with your story is therefore key and social media offers huge potential in this area. Let’s use our websites and other means to show rather than tell what we are doing and a how it helps the environment. And finally let’s make it fun to participate.
The business of selling flooring is highly competitive and price sensitive and will continue to be driven by design and fashion trends. However there is a relentless increase in imposed regulation as a result of various UK and EU government commitments to green issues. There is therefore a compelling business case for every company to understand what is coming and to develop a strategy to deal with it effectively.
Those companies who get ahead of the sustainability curve and communicate what they are doing effectively will surely prosper. The Flooring Sustainability Partnership has a number of members including manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and consultants with very positive stories to tell.
I will include a number of these in a future Flooring Sustainability Partnership edition of this column which I hope will become a regular feature in which we use the various technologies available to us to tell these stories.

Alan Best, a sustainability consultant, is chair of the Flooring Sustainability Partnership, which he attends on behalf of Shaw Industries Group. He works with a number of construction related industries specialising in environmental certification, substitution of hazardous chemicals and waste reduction. Alan is co-author of the Croner ‘Essential Guide to REACH’. He also sits on a number of international bodies where he represents Shaw Industries Group.
www.alanbestsustainability.com

This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal website. You can find them at www.contractflooringjournal.co.uk.