With the first wave of calls for environmental sustainability in the early 2000s came a tsunami of marketing speak designed to promise big and deliver small. The term greenwashing came to encapsulate this phenomenon of corporate hot air. These days, consumers, investors, businesses and the media are more savvy about what does and doesn’t constitute real environmental action.
Recent studies show that big majorities of Gen X and Millennial consumers think addressing climate change should be a top priority for businesses, with older generations lagging a little behind but still coming out in favor of environmental action. Meanwhile, the blight of waste streams from plastic and food on the environment are becoming so glaringly obvious that few dare to turn a blind eye to their own impact.
We have seen this global concern for ethical consumerism mirrored in the emergence of everything from electric cars to edible cups and bamboo bed sheets. But while emergent technologies, renewable energy sources, and sustainable materials light the way to a greener future, how can a company build a zero-waste branding message that communicates its approach to the world today? Here, we explore what a zero-waste brand should convey in its consumer facing messaging.
Build A Zero-Waste Business
It sounds self-evident but a zero-waste branding message relies somewhat heavily on striving to become a zero-waste business. This doesn’t mean you must literally produce no waste as a business in order to talk about sustainability values, but it does mean that your messaging should be based on tangible actions that you are taking at the heart of your business to minimize the waste you add to the world.
Everyone knows there is a balance to be struck between sustainability and the economics of doing business in a competitive global marketplace. Indeed, most of the aforementioned US citizens who want to see action on climate change also believe that fossil fuels have an ongoing role to play in the country’s energy supply. Your customers are not asking you to make the perfect the enemy of the good. They are asking you to try. In a nutshell, zero-waste branding is about being clear and concise about exactly what and how you are trying.
Know Your Customer
Understanding how zero waste relates to your business is the first step to building your zero-waste branding message. But you must also learn where your customers value action the most. For example, to use the example of a sustainable clothing brand, you may have decided that a renewable textile is essential to meet your own zero-waste ambitions, but a number of other questions remain.
For example, are your customers more concerned about the amount of water used in the manufacture and processing of the textile, or in how the clothing can be disposed of at the end of its life? One source of biomass may result in less waste water in the production but may in turn be more difficult to recycle. You should make these decisions on where to focus your energies based on the economics of your business and the zero-waste values of your company, but it also pays to take your customers’ expectations into account.
Case in point, hemp has been a viable renewable textile for thousands of years, and yet historically the negativity spilling over from its relation to the cannabis plant has hampered its appeal. A business must strike a balance between blazing a sustainability trail and finding a large enough market for their product to thrive.
Transparency within your own processes and throughout your supply chain is an important part of your zero-waste marketing strategy. Consumer distrust and skepticism grew out of the countless greenwashing scandals over the last decade such that only 20% of consumers say they believe in companies’ sustainability claims. One way to surmount this is to share your story honestly and in depth from the get go. This means being upfront about both your successes and the problems that have not been solved yet. And it requires you to be proactive, gather information within and outside of your business. Many large corporations who claimed ignorance have nonetheless fallen foul of bad suppliers found guilty of abusing human rights.
Often when setting out targets for environmental good practice we speak in terms of future goals. Overstating our goals can lead to endemic distrust, as we have seen with Paris Climate Pledges where every leading economy is failing short. Grand but ultimately vague zero-waste goals may impress a section of online browsers, but if it’s loyal and engaged customers you are looking for then there must be substance to your sustainability. Better to opt for modest, quantifiable zero-waste goals than impressive-sounding ones. Customers will appreciate an honest assessment of where you are today, not just where you hope to go.
Stay Informed And Engaged
Sustainability is a fast moving train. Revolutionary new materials and energy sources regularly come up against unforeseen barriers to proliferation, while government legislation can cause drastic swings in both consumer attitudes and economic viability (as well as fresh opportunities). It pays to keep abreast of the zero-waste issues most pertinent to your own service offering. Having a platform with which to communicate with your customers is a good idea as they will prove a fount of valuable knowledge as well as a sign post for demand.
Run With The Right Crowd
A business is only as green as its partners. The idea of Extended Producer Responsibility is to encourage businesses to assume responsibility for all aspects of their product life cycle, from raw material extraction through to disposal or recycling. While this may seem daunting there are both hard economic gains and branding advantages to doing so. A recent report found that 83% of consumers are more likely to trust a sustainability claim if it has been verified by a third party (e.g. the Forest Stewardship Council). Whatever your industry, make sure you reflect your good work in your partnerships and accreditations that will legitimize them in the eyes of your customers.
Get Good Advice
Seeking some kind of temperature check of where you are on various metrics of sustainability is a smart move when crafting your zero-waste brand messaging. Consider using a sustainability consultant to help review your business operations for areas of weakness and opportunities to get leaner and more profitable. Zero-waste branding touches not merely the value chain around your core service offering, but everything your business takes out and puts into the world. This means waste management, office supplies and beyond. To take one inspiring take, a restaurant in New York discovered great value in food waste recycling before it became law. You may be surprised at the new revenue streams you can find if you start looking.
The old adage that a team is only as good as its members bears repeating here. You should hire people who want to make your zero-waste values a priority. Your brand messaging has a far greater chance of connecting with customers if your own people believe in it. It’s also more likely to evolve and adapt with a fast moving world if everyone in the company is empowered to evolve it.
We live in a time where more than 50% of consumers would happily pay more for a sustainable product and half of restaurant diners are starting to consider food waste when deciding where to eat. Getting your zero-waste branding message right will help you take advantage of these positive trends and ensure customer loyalty in an uncertain future.
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