Overcoming the Sustainability Marketing Conundrum

One of the most difficult decisions a company can make is how to market its products on sustainability values. Overemphasis on ethical & ecological credentials can lead to detailed corporate scrutiny and accusations of greenwashing. At the same time, not responding to consumer demand for sustainable products can lead to product withdrawal and business failure.

Where should companies draw the line between legitimate marketing and greenwashing? Speakers at Organic Monitor’s sustainability summits share some insights into this new marketing conundrum.

Darrin C. Duber-Smith, a green marketing guru, believes companies need to take a holistic approach to sustainability. He believes the days of choosing options from a ‘green buffet’ are over as consumers becoming increasingly knowledgeable about social and ecological issues. Furthermore, growing pressure from supply chain partners and competitors as well as legislative changes have raised the sustainability bar.

Transparency and clear communications hold they key for a successful green marketing strategy. Being honest and diligent not only fosters customer loyalty, these qualities also breed a ‘feel good’ culture within organisations. Whereas, exaggerated product claims, misleading communications and half-hearted attempts at social responsibility & ecological stewardship turn off consumers and increase business exposure.

The subject of sustainability marketing is highly pertinent in the North American natural personal care industry. Accusations of misleading product labelling and false marketing have resulted in a number of high-profile lawsuits involving the USDA, certification agencies, consumer groups and brand owners. Research by Organic Monitor finds a major reason is the low adoption rate of private standards for natural & organic personal care products. Less than 5 percent of these products in North America are certified, compared to over 70 percent in some Western European countries.

The absence of seals & logos on natural personal care products makes American consumers more dependent on product claims and marketing communications when selecting products. The problem is such claims and marketing messages are not always accurate, thus the series of lawsuits.

Many industry observers believe natural personal care companies should be more forthcoming with information on their product labels. By specifying the precise organic ingredients and percentage of total ingredients on product packaging, consumer trust can be strengthened.

Duber-Smith also encourages food and cosmetic companies to adopt sustainability audits. A sustainability audit should not just look at raw materials, but other aspects such as energy & water usage, waste disposal, biodiversity impact, social partnerships and distribution. Setting targets and continuous improvements are believed to be the way forward.

Sustainability marketing best-practices are a regular feature of the Sustainable Foods Summit and Sustainable Cosmetics Summit. The summits give case studies of companies that are successfully meeting the ecological and social challenges.

Posted: March 1st 2010

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