Going Mainstream: Are Consumers Driving Sustainable Corporate Behavior?

A few months back, I did a piece on the Good Guide and how it might be helpful to consumers as they made decisions.  I certainly had fun playing with the Good Guide on my iPad at my home, but when it came time to use it in the grocery store – between scanning each item, the time it took to execute a query in the database, the fact that many items are not in the database, and then interpreting the result – I’m not certain it was worth it.

I enjoyed reading Marc Gunther’s piece on consumer behavior in Green Biz a couple of weeks back, together with his analysis of whether consumer behavior is driving companies to participate in initiatives like the Good Guide and effecting company change.    I’m still with Joel Makower, founder of GreenBiz, in that I, too, don’t see that consumer behavior is driving market change.

The recent IPO for Annie’s Organics demonstrates perhaps, there is potential for green products.  Molly Ashby, who heads up the fund that took Annie’s from the shelves of specialty organic markets to Costco, commented in the Wall Street Journal that “[e]very once in a while a company comes around that changes things.”  And, Annie’s Organics may really be that company – after all it’s a company with a very clear and forceful CSR mission and its IPO was hugely successful by any standards, not just those of ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ companies. My perspective at the moment though is that this is still a niche marketplace.

I think that before consumers get behind the greening of products they’re going to need a simpler way to consume the information.  One approach is the likes of easy to digest publications like  Consumer Reports and Eat This, Not ThatAnother approach is apps that relate to the consumers personal experience.  So, for example, an app that rather than providing the nutritional specification of a product, tracks the consumers intake of vitamins, calories etc and provides specific  advice on  what to eat for the next snack to stay on track.

But overall,  I think that a sustainable future is not in green products or in detailed sustainability related product data.  I think that the right green decision will ultimately be one that is invisible to the consumer. It is not something the consumer is deciding on consciously. Rather, they buy the best product because it is the best product with the best brand, and it happens to be sustainable too. Sustainability might be reflected as a component in the customer’s trust of the brand, but not of the individual product.

As Dara O’Rourke notes at the end of Marc Gunther’s article, transparency is critically important.  The Sustainability Consortium certainly seems to be moving in that direction. It is building, tools to analyze and evaluate the impact of thousands of products. But, in my opinion, it is not important because the consumer cares on an individual product by product purchase. It is important because it is an important indicator of commitment by the company.

Closer to home, BT recently became the first company to ever achieve a certified cradle to cradle carbon footprint of a product with the new Green House Gas (GHG) protocol, certified by The Carbon Trust. I don’t expect customers to read about this on the side of the box and buy the product as a result.  But it gives us the information we need to understand the full end to end footprint of the product from upstream manufacture at one of our vendors to consumption during in life use at a customer’s premise.  That way we know where to focus our attention to have maximum impact. I hope this attention to fundamentals will become a part of our brand recognition.

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