The mainstreaming of sustainability

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....

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….

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 mainstream.

Take a look at Japan. As a natural resource-poor country, 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. Earlier this year, two of the world’s largest companies – Wal-Mart and General Electric – announced major environmental initiatives. There are those who might dismiss this as a PR exercise, but one effect the GE and

Wal-Mart announcements have had 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.

Ford executive chairman 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 there can be an alignment of goals of hard-core environmentalists and corporations, but there it is. No longer is saving the planet seen as conflicting with profit – it’s now a means to profit.

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 interested in ‘social responsibility,’ a term that seamlessly incorporates the best of the above three terms, and reaches further – bringing along collective spirit, innovation and economic responsibility for the ride.

How does this work in real life? Ford created a plastic shipping container to ferry parts between plants. The 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 container saves Ford 25% in shipping costs, helps people, and helps the environment.

Another thing we need to do is show people there is an intersection where desire and virtue meet. You can still fulfil 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 Red. ‘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.’

And it’s no longer optional.

We need to make sure our clients know that if they don’t start acting on sustainability now, they are going to be stuck playing catch-up.

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

Marc Stoiber is the president of Change in Vancouver. Change’s mission is to accelerate the adoption of green brands into the mainstream. Previously, Marc was CD at Grey Canada and DDB Toronto. He can be reached at