By Valpy Fitzgerald, Director of Green Markets at Opus Energy
When it comes to doing business, it pays to be sustainable.
Sustainability is now a major factor in determining how consumers choose to spend their money. This is because people want brands to help them feel like they’re making a difference and will actively seek out those brands and businesses that align with their own values. At the same time, businesses who put purpose on par with profit are far more likely to attract and retain the best talent, helping the company to innovate and grow.
Businesses have become increasingly aware of the many benefits of a climate-friendly business model. Companies are committing to reducing their carbon emissions to net zero, seemingly on a weekly basis. Yet many businesses that have chosen to communicate their sustainable vision have fallen foul of claims that they are ‘green washing’ – a term used to decry those businesses using sustainability merely as a marketing ploy.
So how do businesses align themselves with the collective goal of net zero and communicate this to their stakeholders and customers in a way that is both authentic and credible? Below, I outline the 4 key things every small to medium business owner should be thinking about when establishing a sustainability policy.
Decide on your ‘why’
Sustainability can be a minefield. You have companies being accused of too soft an approach, while others are criticised for not acting at tall. Before you implement change, you need to understand what it means for you to become more sustainable, your reasons for doing this, and how it aligns with your existing brand and customer base.
Knowing your ‘why’ allows you to stay true to your purpose without the distraction, helping you to deliver a clear and consistent message to your stakeholders and customers.
Work out your ‘how’
Once you fully understand the reasons why you want to become more sustainable, you’ll need to come up with a plan for how to do it. How far are you willing to go to achieve your sustainability goals and what is manageable in the long term? It’s better to be realistic than overly ambitious.
Invest your time on working out what works for you as a business, be it moving to a renewable energy provider, generating your own electricity on-site, or offering electric vehicles to employees as company cars.
Businesses need to be true to themselves and their own goals, and transparent to their customers, without over-promising. If you decide to commit to reducing your carbon emissions to net zero by a specific date, you’ll have to be prepared to answer questions on how you’re going to achieve this. Public statements announcing your commitment to the environment can easily be perceived as virtue signalling; people want to hear about what you’re really doing to make a difference – and this means giving tangible details.
Communicate this to your team
Making sustainability part of your workplace culture is essential. Your people live and breathe your brand, and they’re also often the first point of contact for your customers.
Any sustainability policy is destined to fail if your website says one thing, but your employees are say another. For this reason, good internal communication is just as important as customer comms. Before going out with a press release or an announcement on social media, make sure the whole team is on board and on message. Talk them through your ‘why’ and spend time consulting with them on your ‘hows’ – they’re likely to be a big part of the latter.
Try to engage all your employees in your planning sessions at the earliest possible stage, rather than simply telling them ‘this is what we’re doing’. By encouraging your employees to form a personal connection to sustainable thinking, they are far more likely to get involved with sustainable actions within your company.
Be open and honest with your customers
Customers are becoming increasingly savvy to brand deception and the repercussions of being caught out can be serious. There are countless examples of this happening, many of which gather media attention and can be reputationally damaging. This year, Ryanair was accused of greenwashing after the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned an ad campaign in which the company falsely claimed it was “Europe's low CO2 emissions airline”. Ancol Pet Products also had an advert banned by ASA after research showed its ‘biodegradable’ dog bags were no more beneficial than standard dog bags.
These companies were trying to leverage consumer demand for sustainable products in a dishonest way. That’s why it’s crucial to be transparent in all of your external communications, even if it means talking about your shortcomings. Customers respond well to honesty and openness and are loyal to value-driven brands. Clothing brand Patagonia saw revenue growth of 30% after its ‘Don’t Buy this Jacket’ campaign, which highlighted the importance of sustainable consumption.
It’s not just your campaigns you need to think about – it’s every external touch point of your business. This includes your website and all social media channels. And remember, you don’t have to be as bold as Patagonia, but a little bit of candour can go a long way.
Not just a passing trend
Sustainability has proven itself to be more than just a passing trend; it has become a business imperative. Meanwhile, government regulations around carbon emissions are becoming more and more rigorous, which means that there’s little room left for procrastination. A strong and dynamic sustainability policy will provide your businesses with a blueprint for future growth, in line with the UK’s commitment to become carbon neutral by 2050.