Corporate Social Responsibility has taken on a greater role in the past year, as customers expect the brands they do business with to share their own values and ideals. As more people come to recognize the damage that humans have done to the earth, sustainability has become a hot-button issue. When sustainability becomes part of a brand’s culture, it becomes a point of differentiation, a core value, and it has a large impact on the way customers (and employees) perceive the brand. This article will look at the different ways that sustainability impacts the customer experience.

What Does Sustainability Mean in 2021?

Sustainability used to be strictly about environmental issues. Conservation. Pollution. Ecology. Clean air and water. Save the trees. Today, however, it refers to brands that have embraced social, human, economic, and environmental issues and include them as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs. It means cutting down the environmental footprint left by manufacturing processes, supporting social causes that fight against injustice, helping the less fortunate in their communities, and always remembering that no matter what, everything revolves around human beings.

This has been a year of brands publicly taking stands on social issues as part of their CSR policies. Recently, many brands reacted to the anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was murdered by a police officer. Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dan Schulman, president and CEO at PayPal, Mary Barra, chair and CEO at General Motors, and Bracken Darrell, CEO at Logitech, were among those who recommitted to the fight against racial inequality.

Alan Gaul, VP of Marketing & Brand Management at Bank of Guam, told CMSWire that in addition to the normal applicability of sustainability to a brand’s CSR policy, 2021 brought a higher level of consciousness to sustainability. “There is clearly more emphasis on how, where, and who businesses decide to work with.  There has been a shift in our footprint.  We see many clients now using reused, renewed, and recycled materials in building, equipment, and even office furniture and supplies.” 

One of the challenges of sustainability in 2021 involves the public’s lack of understanding about the topic. Genomatica, a San Diego-based biotechnology company, recently released the results of a survey that asked consumers about their desire for sustainable clothing. The survey revealed that not only is there confusion among consumers about what actually makes clothing environmentally sustainable (or not), but that they are looking to brands for the answers. Genomatica's survey also indicated that 55% said they are interested in purchasing ‘sustainable clothing,’ while 48% didn’t know how or where to find sustainable clothes.

The survey also revealed that consumers want brands to step up and display a transparent and accessible way to shop sustainably. 55% of those polled want brands to help them understand how their clothing products are more sustainable than the alternatives. 50% indicated that a sustainability label would assist them to identify sustainable clothes while they are shopping, and 38% say that clearly presented information about sustainability features would make them desire sustainable clothing. Over a third said that “If there was a store for sustainable clothes, I'd do all my shopping there.”

Related Article: Advance the 3 Pillars of Sustainability Through Tech

Environmental Issues Take on New Importance

Brad Dockser, CEO at GreenGen, a dynamic global energy technology firm, thinks that brands can not only attract social conscious customers, but become more profitable by being more sustainable and environmentally conscious. “No one is going to say, ‘I’m not buying your product because you promote clean air.’ But there are plenty of people who will be attracted to the social good side of a business because they want to align themselves with the value system and morals of the products that they consume.” said Dockser. “Hence, the cosmetic industry focuses on emphasizing when they do not use animal testing.”

Customers want to do business with brands whose values align with their own, and they will make decisions based on that criteria. Dockser said that customers see it like this: “Support companies and brands that make sustainability a priority. From where you buy your family’s food to the clothing you wear, every company has an environmental footprint and strategy you can align with (or not).” All businesses have somebody to report to, and those people must be held accountable for the actions of the brand. “Every business has stakeholders. Everybody’s in somebody else’s supply chain. If I sell cookies, I’m selling to consumers. If I sell 50-pound bags of flour, I’m selling to a factory,” Dockser explained. “As a consumer of products, I am in somebody’s supply chain. When you are focused on selling to consumers, you want them to be comfortable aligning their values with the business you’re in.”

The environmental effects of business will no longer be ignored by consumers, who are very aware of global warming, pollution, and the fact that how we act now will be affecting life for centuries to come. Being environmentally conscious also has the benefit of being well accepted within the local community. “If you need to expand your plant and you can show that you’ve invested in lowering emissions, you are much more likely to get a permit from local authorities because they don’t see your expansion as a moral or environmental threat. They see it as something positive for the environment and economy,” said Dockser.

Customers Know Sustainability Is the Right Thing to Do

According to Julie Guest, CEO and chief marketing strategist at New York-based marketing agency Bolder&Louder, sustainability is a bottom-up trend that’s valued by both customers and employees. “Sustainability is finally a hot button with businesses of all sizes — not necessarily because it is the right thing to do, but because consumers are demanding it,” said Guest.

There are companies at both ends of the spectrum when it comes to sustainability. Some, such as Amazon, do not seem to prioritize sustainability over convenience and profit, although they do now allow customers to group orders into the fewest shipments possible. For Amazon, “the customer experience is all about speed — not sustainability. It will be interesting to see how Amazon morph's their business model over the next couple of years in response to customer demand,” said Guest.

Other companies, such as Adidas and Patagonia, are leading the charge towards sustainability. Adidas, for instance, launched x Parley footwear made from upcycled ocean plastic, and it was a very successful campaign.

“They also halved their energy usage using waterless dyeing and are launching more recyclable products each year (so far a hoodie from recycled cotton and a biodegradable tennis dress),” Guest shared.

Patagonia has gone so far as working to change its customer’s buying habits to a more sustainable direction. They have gone against the trend of “fast fashion” by producing long-wearing clothing, and now offers its customers the ability to repair and reuse their clothes through its Worn Wear program. “Anyone wearing Patagonia wears their sustainability badge of honor with pride,” she said.

Learning Opportunities

Guest said that it’s not just large brands that can make an impact through sustainability — smaller environmentally conscious businesses can be impactful, even if it’s just by changing the packaging they use. “Several of our clients switched to using biodegradable poly mailers, packing tape, and compostable food-safe paper (like the kind you wrap your hamburger in),” Guest said. “Customers have loved the switch, and boutique green paper companies like have made it a simple, cost-effective change to make.”

Customers Support Brands That Consider Community Impact

The last year has proven that brands that stand up for their customers, employees, and community will long be remembered as champions when the chips are down. When brands show that they are taking sustainability and environmental impact into account in their communities, both during new construction projects and factory processes, those in the community are more likely to become customers and advocates.

Vijay Eswaran, founder of the RYTHM Foundation (Raise Yourself To Help Mankind), the QI Group’s social impact initiative, is a noted author, entrepreneur, economist, and philanthropist. He said that at his own organizations, he has instituted policies to reduce the environmental impact they have on the community and planet at large. One example he shared is that they are completely free of single-use plastic, instituted plant-based diet company-wide, and only invests in businesses promoting sustainability. Eswaran said that sustainability is focused on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. “This means that we, the current generation, cannot continue using up resources at the current level of consumption.” His 3 Pillars of Sustainability are the foundation of his work, and could be the building blocks for a corporate sustainability program:

  • Empowering People: “People are the foundation of our businesses. We are committed to creating an engaging, healthy, sustainable, and welcoming workplace for all.”
  • Transforming Communities: “We believe that as communities thrive, we thrive. We bring forth sustainable development to the communities we serve with the aim of achieving a better future together.”
  • Safeguarding the Environment: “As a global citizen, we have a responsibility to the planet to sustain its limited resources for future generations. We continually strengthen our business practices to address how we engage with the environment and how we can advocate for a more sustainable world.”

Eswaran is committed to helping large and small communities find the right place they can begin conserving and enhancing their resource base, through a gradual change in the ways they develop and use technologies.

Gaul said that the Bank of Guam’s customers are very sophisticated and have a heightened awareness of social and environmental issues. “Today’s clients have an expectation that businesses are socially and environmentally responsible. That being said, I believe that millennials are more geared toward environmental issues and causes while the older generation(s) are more in tune with affecting social change. Regardless, I think customers support brands that don’t just talk about CSR but show it, act it and live it,” he said.

These highly educated and “woke” customers often purchase products that demonstrate some form of social or environmental benefit. “Internally, we observe how customers support us as they evaluate and experience our community impact in the communities which we serve,” said Gaul.

The Customer Journey Is Enriched by Technology and Sustainability

Being able to improve the lives of customers is a key in the core values of brands that practice sustainability, said Mohan Maheswaran, president and CEO of Semtech. “As the planet increasingly is connected, my team is dedicated to giving everyone — across the globe — the opportunity to live a better life.”

Semtech’s long-range, low-power LoRa technology enables brands to deliver connectivity that can monitor and alert hazardous situations such as fires, floods, and earthquakes. “We are working with international conservation organizations and smart building developers, alike. In every partnership we support, we’re 100% committed to ensuring our offering is giving humanity an advantage that we didn't have prior to technology,” Maheswaran explained.

Being able to use technology to improve the lives of customers is something that many brands strive for today, and those customers are loyal to the brands that put people, the environment, social, and economic issues over profits. “Technology is the DNA of who I am as an executive, but the core of how I develop, deliver and promote my technology is that of a human,” said Maheswaran. “I will always use both these talents to serve the masses.”

Final Thoughts

Sustainability is comprised of many issues that affect humanity and the environment, and brands today embrace it as a part of their core values — a central part of their corporate social responsibilities. By staying focused on sustainability, recognizing that customers understand that it’s not only profitable, it’s the right thing to do, brands will enrich the lives of their customers, and those customers will become loyal brand advocates.