7 Takeaways from the Responsible Business Coalition “Conscious Consumer” Conference

Fordham University's Gabelli School of Business hosted an online conference full of ideas on how brands can adapt to new consumer demands.

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Acting with people and the planet in mind isn’t just a moral imperative for businesses. It’s also becoming a financial necessity. That’s because today’s consumers expect more from brands. When choosing where to spend their money, they’re increasingly turning to those that genuinely make a positive difference in the world.

Amidst this age of the “Conscious Consumer,” the Responsible Business Coalition (RBC) at Fordham University's Gabelli School of Business hosted an online conference this week to discuss how businesses can adapt.

Leaders from some of the top brands in the retail, technology, communication, and other sectors shared actionable insights that can help other organizations make beneficial changes.

Seven of the top takeaways include:

1. Sustainability Can’t Be Supplemental

While many businesses are taking positive steps to improve corporate responsibility, treating sustainability as an add-on to existing work won’t cut it anymore.

That’s not to say that businesses can realistically change everything overnight, but sustainability needs to be present in all decision-making, just as financial issues generally permeate all business decisions.

Too often, businesses “treat sustainability issues as something that’s a bolt-on. In other words, they believe it to be supplemental to the primary function of business,” said Dr. Lerzan Aksoy, interim dean of the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University and managing director at the RBC.

“But that thinking ignores a very important and fundamental truth, which is that businesses exist to meet customer needs. And our research at the Responsible Business Coalition clearly shows that consumers overwhelmingly want companies to address environmental, social, and governance issues,” she added.

2. Consumers Recognize Contrived Efforts

Today’s consumers see through contrived efforts to address issues like social and environmental justice. That’s in part because they have more ability to research brands on their own, rather than relying on what brands say in a TV ad, for example, noted Maani Safa, CEO and founder of Poppins, a digital creative agency.

“The modern-day consumer is incredibly well informed…[and] eager to make the right decisions,” he said.

If a brand wants to do something for Environmental Awareness Month, Black History Month, Pride Month, etc., Safa advises them to not jump on the bandwagon.

Instead, he noted, brands need to demonstrate true commitment to these types of causes on an ongoing basis, rather than just launching a short-term campaign.

When brands try surface-level initiatives, the conscious consumer “sees straight through that, and it does more brand damage than not,” said Safa.

3. Be Honest About Your Sustainability Journey

While sustainability should be central to your business, it still takes time to implement change across a whole organization. The good news is that consumers may be more willing than you think to go along for the ride, as long as you’re being honest.

“Talk about the progress, not perfection,” said Jamie Hall, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Pentatonic, a design and technology consultancy. “Because there’s no perfect company that’s perfectly operating in a circular model. There is no perfect net-zero-emisssions company. And I think it’s okay to admit that. The consumer just wants transparency.”

“Make it feel like it’s a journey you can bring the consumer with,” he added.

4. Less Production Can Still Lead to Growth

A huge challenge facing brands, particularly those that sell physical products, is figuring out how to grow while shrinking their environmental footprint. But those two goals don’t always have to be at odds.

For example, Trove provides technology to help brands like Lululemon launch their own reselling programs so they can become more circular. Doing so can engage existing customers with the opportunities to get trade-in credits and give new life to clothing, while also creating pathways to reach new customers.

Lulemon's resale initiative means getting around five users for one pair of yoga pants, for example, which means up to four pairs don’t have to be made, explained Andy Ruben, founder and CEO of Trove.

“It’s ultimately addressing the need for less new production. And if we’re not doing that, we’re accelerating our race backward because of the amount of stuff in the world. We’ve got to be able to address that,” said Ruben.

5. Measurement Empowers Change

If brands want to get the most out their sustainability efforts, they need to measure corresponding areas, like carbon footprints. That’s not always easy, such as for brands with complex supply chains and multiple layers of manufacturing. But that transparency is necessary to understand the impact of sustainability efforts and to prioritize future initiatives.

“It’s great to make a commitment, but if you don’t know what you’re mapping up against and what your progress is, it’s impossible to make a meaningful change, report back on it, and actually understand what the impact is,” said Maria McClay, director of fashion and beauty at Google Cloud.

That being said, some measurement is better than no measurement. Don’t let complexity be a total roadblock.

“You don’t have to have everything perfect. You don’t need to map the entire supply chain to start,” she added. “What’s important is to start, to measure, and to have some kind of visibility, and then you can add” on from there.

6. Get Specific to Avoid Greenwashing Claims

An unfortunate side of the sustainability movement is greenwashing, where brands try to ride the wave without making meaningful (or any) change. So, while your brand might have good intentions, you might need to put in a little extra effort to prove that you’re not greenwashing.

One such way to show sincerity is to measure and report on these issues — such as with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics — rather than just figuring out what makes for good copywriting.

“If you’re layering an ESG story on top of a green claim, usually it’s far more credible,” said Debbie Shakespeare, senior director of sustainability, compliance, and core product lines at Avery Dennison, a materials science and manufacturing company.

Plus, she pointed out that legislation will increasingly make companies back up their sustainability claims.

The European Green Deal, for example, says: “Companies making ‘green claims’ should substantiate these against a standard methodology to assess their impact on the environment.”

If brands aren’t careful, they could face backlash beyond compliance issues.

“Brands are being called out for inauthentic, performative, and surface-level initiatives right and left,” said Whitney Dailey, executive vice president, Purpose, at Allison + Partners, a marketing and communications agency.

7. Empower Employees as Sustainability Advocates

Lastly, businesses should leverage their employees to enhance sustainability efforts. As it stands, many employees, especially younger ones, want to be a part of companies with an environmental and social mission.

84% say the pandemic, economic uncertainty and social justice conversations of the past two years have made them think more about how their work can have a positive or negative impact on society,” finds a study by Carol Cone On Purpose, The Harris Poll, Allison + Partners, and Headstand.

So, getting employees involved can help with attracting and retaining employees, while also increasing the efficacy of brand initiatives.

“Co-create solutions and commitments with employees to ensure that they are brought in on that strategy moving forward, because ultimately, employees are your biggest advocates,” said Dailey of Allison + Partners.

Start Authentically

As these seven takeaways from Fordham’s RBC conference indicate, brands have many opportunities to make a positive impact on the world while strengthening their own businesses.

The key is to be authentic, even if that means being honest about being at the beginning of your sustainability journey, rather than already having your whole supply chain mapped and your emissions cut to zero, for instance.

By being genuine and starting to take some positive steps forward, consumers and employees can become more aligned with your brand.

Disclosure: Our parent company, JournoContent LLC, has clients involved in sustainability-related areas, among others. The owner of Carbon Neutral Copy, Jacob (Jake) Safane, has investments in sustainability-related companies, among others.

As such, conflicts of interest related to these and other investments/business relationships, even if unintended, may exist at times. Please email info@carbonneutralcopy.com if you'd like further clarification on any issues.

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