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Mitch Ratcliffe


Business has a problem shared with the rest of the world. Global warming has placed our lifestyle at risk. Customers and workers seek options that do not do further damage to a planet that, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has 12 years to respond before irreversible damage becomes inevitable. How does a company communicate the role it plays in reducing the environmental debt humanity has built up?


“Sustainability can be your competitive advantage and differentiator, especially when price, performance, and quality are similar,” author Kevin Wilhelm explained in Making Sustainability Stick: The Blueprint for Successful Implementation, “But it’s an advantage only if you use it.”

Telling the story is less important than delivering tangible results because customers will share stories of environmental success based on their own experience. But, marketing sustainability as a business value is fraught with controversy today because people and parties have lined up on opposing sides of the issue.

“Of course there’s often a fine line between customer input and customer wrath,” wrote Andrew S. Winston in The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, “and companies need to be careful if they actually seek out opinions.”

But taking no stand on the environment is a waste of your company’s sustainability investments, which research shows the majority of your customers do care about. Too many companies declare sustainability goals for the future and practice a form of marketing called “greenwashing” that becomes just a story – another unproven corporate announcement that adds to marketplace noise.

Real Change, Real Results

In spite of the divisiveness, sustainable business does pay dividends, saving 190 of Fortune 500 companies almost $3.7 billion in 2016. Those savings fall directly to the bottom line and represent a compelling story for the 66 percent of all consumers who say they value sustainability enough to pay a premium for it.

Sustainability is even more important to younger generations, who will live with the consequences of harmful practices the longest. Seventy-two percent of Millennials and94 percent of Generation Z demand products that do not harm the environment. How, then, to maximize investments in sustainability in your supply chain, the selection of materials, and internal practices?

Learn to tell the story of your commitment to sustainability inside your company, then let the results your team delivers to customers do the work. Enable your employees and partners to tell others why they make choices to lower carbon emissions. Actions speak louder than words.

Confidence and Trust Built Over Time

Customers in the digital era have the tools to find and buy the offers that support their values. Consequently, sustainability isn’t a one-time campaign, nor is it the centerpiece of a unique selling proposition. Rather, it is an increasingly essential fact that must accompany a successful value proposition in advertising and marketing communications.

Why? Sustainability was an afterthought until humans developed the science to recognize the cost of Digital transformation made us aware of the future cost of environmental impacts created by the products on the shelf today.

Customers want their clothes to be stylish and sustainable.

They want transportation that does not leave their children gasping for air.

They still want a tomato in the dead of winter, but without shipping it halfway around the world.

Digital technology can extend the customer’s visibility into the ecological and social cost of products and services. Product sourcing, manufacturing practices, and shipping strategies are secondary, yet essential, decision-making criteria for the sustainability-hungry consumer that wants to enjoy today while leaving a healthy atmosphere for their descendants.

Blend Your Investments for Transparency

Digital infrastructure and tools used by your team are the basis of providing continuing conclusive evidence that your products are sourced and manufactured responsibly. Brands gather more data than ever and must use the information to demonstrate sustainability and responsibility to customers.

“Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder,” the great nonfiction writer John McPhee explained in Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. He added: “When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.” Do the same with your traditional branding.

Every investment in digital transformation, from new cloud services and handheld devices for workers to e-contracting and artificial intelligence, deepens the pool of resources marketers can use. Armed with data, marketers can be honest and effective advocates for the brand. Companies must choose to use sustainability information rather than hide it.

Marketing practices are evolving from campaign-based blockbuster messaging efforts to become continuing demonstrations that a brand keeps its word. For example, Mastercard doesn’t need to remind customers of its name, only its continuous value, so it has stepped back and lets its iconic logo assure customers they are on the job. Sustainability is a product of information and customers will respond positively if they see it in action.

Marketing and technology investments must be coordinated to maximize the information available to consumers. Each new platform and business process spits out enough data to drown the world in details, and it must be curated through design into a meaningful message. A marketing organization must be ready to assess the information technology it uses in the context of the whole business.

Draw data and story points into the customer communication flow so that your customers can examine your environmental bona fides. Then, with your help in the form of social tools, event and experiential marketing campaigns, and their own experience, your brand’s sustainability story can be well told. It’s a story about the Earth and its atmosphere that must underlie every successful brand in the mid-21st Century.


“If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost,” McPhee wrote, “Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.”

We have the tools to let customers tell the story of products and services they use that contribute to a healthy world. Can you afford not to use them? Do you use them well?

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