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Raz Godelnik headshot

Finding a Narrative: 'Sustainability' Doesn’t Mean Anything Real to Consumers

By Raz Godelnik

Last week at the Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego, gDiapers CEO, Jason Graham-Nye said: “I think sustainability is like fight club. The first rule of fight club is don’t talk about fight club. The first rule of sustainability is the word is so dead.”

And he’s not alone. In one of the conference events, Raphael Bemporad -- co-founder and chief strategy officer at BBMG and Tensie Whelan, president of Rainforest Alliance -- presented a new report entitled The New Sustainably Narrative, which tries to address the following problem:

“Sustainability doesn’t mean anything real to consumers. Too often, it brings to mind technical issues or seemingly insurmountable environmental challenges.”

I guess this problem statement shouldn’t be surprising news to anyone involved in or following the many efforts to engage consumers in sustainability.  The issue it raises has long become the Achilles' heel of the sustainability movement, making companies wonder what on earth can be done to get consumers on board.

So, what can be done to change the status quo when it comes to consumers with or without using the ‘S’ word?

Well, to answer this exact question a group of industry experts in consumer behavior met in a workshop hosted by the Rainforest Alliance. The group brainstormed “a new global narrative that taps into the consumer shift towards a broader and more meaningful set of values around mindful living and sustainability.” And the results of this effort can be found in The New Sustainably Narrative report, which was sponsored by Domtar and authored by BBMG.

The first part of the report includes some compelling information about consumer trends that was introduced by industry experts, including:

  • Consumers don’t connect sustainability to their own wellbeing or success (BuzzBack Market Research)

  • Consumers want brands to empower a meaningful life, and yet ... Most people would not care if 73 percent of brands disappeared (Havas)

  • Brands must evolve to deliver on social and cultural benefits – caring for my wellbeing and the wellbeing of my family, for the wellbeing of my community and for the wellbeing of the planet (Coca-Cola).

When you look at these findings in the context of narrative then it becomes quite clear that the challenge is to translate sustainability into concepts people understand and find compelling -- wellbeing, betterment, purpose and so on.

Yet, it might be that the problem isn’t just the narrative but also the narrator. Many of the brands that struggle to make sustainability compelling to consumers are the ones that told us for many years stories in which their products are the heroes, helping us to express ourselves. Now as marketing expert Jonah Sachs explains companies interested in sustainability try to tell different stories, in which people, not the brands are the heroes.

In these stories brands empower helpless consumers to become true citizens that can make a difference. The only problem is that this transition isn’t easy because people apparently find it hard to believe that companies, which for decades were mostly focused on selling more stuff convincing us that “happiness is the smell of a new car,” suddenly take interest in our wellbeing, not to mention our communities’ wellbeing.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that all the examples brought up in the report on how to do it right when it comes to creating a sustainability narrative are of new companies (Lyft and Toms), B2B companies, or companies that worked from day one to build an authentic sustainable profile (Ben & Jerry’s and The Body Shop). Apparently rebuilding your sustainability narrative is much more difficult than creating it from scratch.

Still, this is not an impossible mission, and this is where the report comes in handy for companies facing this challenge. Its second part provides practical advice on how to engage people with an effective sustainable narrative. The first recommendation is to go tribal, exploring the symbols, language and rituals that shape our culture and approaching his tribe differently in accordance with these elements.

The report identifies three different tribes – the radius tribe: the people who do rather than talk (they share assets and skills, celebrate local traditions, and unite in local events); the good collective tribe: the people who make every moment count (they do good and volunteer, share their activities online and are rewarded for “do gooding” and sharing); and the bettering tribe: the people who see what’s possible (they enhance products, services and experiences to be more sustainable, influence companies by sharing ideas and experiences, and engage with them in various ways like crowdsourcing).

Okay, so we have divided the target market into three tribes. Now, what’s next? The report offers three simple but important key innovation pathways to reach these tribes: Communicate sustainability in the context of everyday life, connect to the universal aspiration to live a meaningful and happy life, and inspire innovation and refuse to accept compromise.

Finally, the report offers couple of takeaways on how might brands lead the way forward: give them something to believe in (for example Holstee manifesto); give them community to belong to (Toms); amplify their voices and creativity (GE garages); give them social status and something to share (Upworthy); and give them a platform for participation and impact (Ben and Jerry’s).

Overall, the report rightly identifies the disconnectedness between people and the sustainability as both a problem and an opportunity for companies. Can they meet this challenge? I believe the answer is yes, but only if they are really up to the challenge and understand that this is as much about the narrator (i.e. themselves) as it is about the narrative.

Companies should also remember that this fight is may be more about the seventh rule of fight club – “fights will go on as long as they have to” -- more than it is the first rule. The winners will be those that build an authentic, transparent narrative for the long run -- one that is all about sustainability, with or without the ‘S’ word in it.

Stay tuned for more coverage from the 2014 Sustainable Brands conference this week on Triple Pundit! 

Image credit: Holstee

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik headshot

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

Read more stories by Raz Godelnik