The Mainstreaming of Sustainability

Sustainable life media logo2 Sustainable Life Media presents the argument for mainstreaming sustainability by creating a common vocabulary for marketers, and finding common goals.  Marc Stoiber also states that sustainability needs to be promoted and seen as profitable (because it is).

Posted Oct. 2009
By Marc Stoiber, Sustainable Life Media

Sustainability has been adopted into countless brand strategies and
used as a differentiator to create competitive advantages. Now it's
time for Marketers to help mainstream this concept by developing a
common vocabulary and uniting everyone around a shared goal.

It used to be you'd hear the words "sustainability" or
"environmentally friendly" and you'd get images of poncho wearing aging
hippies warming a pot of water for hemp tea, over heat generated by the
compost heap. The times, they are a changing…

The Paradigm Shift

Over the last few years these images have started to fade. The
paradigm is shifting. What used to be 'alternative' and 'fringe' is now
becoming mainstream. At the same time what used to be mainstream is
rapidly becoming the past. It's not only a change in perception, but
also a change in values. Sustainability is moving rapidly towards the

Take a look at Japan – a natural resource poor country. They don't
have any resources to waste. Making products with fewer resources is a
requirement for business. This manifests itself as a wealth of
environmentally friendly, desirable, high margin products. If they do
for sustainability what they've done with consumer electronics, we'd
better get moving fast.

The shift is happening in North America too. Last year, two of the
worlds largest companies – Wal-Mart and General Electric – announced
major environmental initiatives. There are those who see this as a PR
exercise, but one effect the GE and Wal-Mart announcements have is
forcing the discussion of a sustainable agenda in major boardrooms all
over the world.

The Home Depot, when deciding what suppliers to use, says that if
quality and price are equal, sustainability is the deciding factor.
Sustainability is becoming a major competitive advantage. If
implemented correctly it can demand a premium and blossom a brand's
emotional connection.

Finding common goals

Ford CEO Bill Ford may have said it best in the Ford Motor Company's 2005 sustainability report:

"We have made sustainability a long-term strategic business
priority. The reason is simple: we are a 100-year-old company, and we
want to become a 200-year-old company. Sustainability is about ensuring
that our business is innovative, competitive and profitable in a world
that is facing major environmental and social changes."

The keys here are innovative, competitive and profitable. These are
the goals of every corporation. The perception of what is innovative is
changing focus to the environment and sustainability. Implementing this
innovation is required to be competitive and that is what's going to
keep a company profitable.

It's hard to believe that there can be an alignment of goals of
hard-core environmentalists and corporations, but there it is:
Preservation of the world around us. No longer is saving the planet
seen as conflicting with profit – it's now a means to profit.

Developing common language.

Now we have divergent groups working towards the same goals. This is
where we, as marketers, can really help speed the mainstreaming of
sustainable initiatives. We need to step into the middle, help build a
common vocabulary and help everyone understand we are talking about the
same thing – which in turn will sell more sustainable products.

The stain on the word 'sustainability' and its siblings 'corporate
responsibility' and 'environmental stewardship' is that they carry the
connotations of the past. They're more about saving the planet than
saving business.

We need to shift the connotations of these words so they are seen more for what they are: good business and a reason to buy.

Executives today are being taught about 'social innovation', a term
that seamlessly incorporates the best of the above three terms, and
reaches further – bringing along collective spirit, new thinking and
economic responsibility for the ride.

How does this work in real life? Consider:

Ford developed a plastic shipping container used to ferry parts from
one plant to the next. The shipping container eliminates the use of
cardboard, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, reduces the number of
shipments required, and is more ergonomic for factory workers. It is
also recycled into splash shields for the F-150.

This shipping container saves Ford 25% in shipping costs, helps people, and helps the environment.

Another thing we need to do – show people that there is an
intersection where desire and virtue meet. You can still fulfill your
desire for wants beyond needs, and make the world a better place at the
same time.

Maybe Bono summed it up most succinctly, talking about his new line of products under the RED label…

"And that's what Red is all about, the knowledge that desire – the
desire to shop – and virtue – the wish to see the world a better place
– are not always contradictory."

No longer optional.

We need to make sure companies that we work with know that if they
don't start acting on sustainability initiatives now, they are going to
be stuck in a losing game of catch up.

Sustainability is on the very cusp of being mainstream and it will
move forward quickly. Grab the advantage before it becomes table stakes.

Marc is an entrepreneur with a wealth of experience building brands.
He has nearly two decades of global experience in every sector from
packaged goods and beverage alcohol to pharma, financial services and

In addition to leading Change, Marc is an accomplished public speaker on the subject of green brand innovation, with engagements from coast to coast.

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