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Sustainability and Marketing: Two Sides of The Same Coin?

Say I work for a brand, and I’m looking for a shortcut to boost market share. What factors help me to sell my products? It’s a bucket full of things like good design, speed to market, distribution, efficient supply chain replenishment, and a good story. A good story? Now, that requires marketing.

How can I leverage a story to boost market share and shortcut acceptance with consumers? Well, let’s do something with sustainability. After all, sustainability isn’t real: It can be hard to define, but it has an emotional appeal for many consumers. So, it’s a good story.

In the end, do consumers care? Not really, not during these times. Economics plays a more central role in consumer decisions. The cost of a garment matters most for many consumers, so if a fuzzy sustainability story can help me to pass on higher prices, then chalk one up for effective marketing.

So, there we have it: Convoluted, contrived thinking for convoluted times—tainted by a dose of inflation and economic insecurity. It’s disheartening, but today’s reality.

Reality Sets In

Now, plenty of people care about the planet’s health. But here’s the rub: Paying for the planet’s health is a luxury that’s too much to bear for many people. That goes for industry and consumers alike. So, yeah, inflationary times affect consumers’ purchasing decisions, along with the business decisions of sourcing companies, manufacturers, shippers, exporters—the entire supply chain.

So, let’s start with the basics. Does sustainability (or even circularity) come with added costs? The answer is yes. But along with those costs comes efficiency. In truth, companies shouldn’t view the added costs of environmental compliance as anything other than investments to make their operations more efficient. Because, in the long run, their cost of doing business comes down.

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When treated seriously with conviction, brands can make a definitive statement about environmental sustainability and quench their capitalistic thirst for profitability. Lower a brand’s cost of doing business, and then profits will grow. To adopt an actionable sustainability program, one focused on streamlining supply chains and eliminating undesirable inputs, is, in effect, to adopt an efficiency plan.

It may sound simple, but in practice, it’s anything but that. However, the effort is worth the reward. Boost a company’s bottom line? Makes sense. It makes more sense to do so by adopting sustainability programs that help reduce input costs in ways such as reduced reliance on convoluted shipping and gnarled supply chains.

Reevaluate what it takes to make a product instead of automatically assuming the cheapest supplier is the way to go. The cheapest supplier is often an environmental liability. Such liabilities end up costing companies more in the long run. Rethink it.

 

There’s a Catch, Though

Seldom have I heard in my career more obfuscation and just plain spin when it comes to data. The media is guilty of it: One month’s reported data turns into a self-made trend just because of a well-written headline. Our industry suffers from that, too. Only our headlines are more than Wall Street fodder. People’s livelihoods are at stake. And the health of the planet remains an ever-present concern.

And let’s not forget that data is often weaponized to drive home personal beliefs or perceptions. Unfortunately, such data are often misused in this internet age, have a long shelf life, and are hard to dispel.

Here’s a stopping point for me: The planet. We all know (although not always admitted) that our industry’s operations harm the earth. Some of it is intentional, some not. After all, people must make a living, and many are sensitive to their environmental footprint. Still, so many others couldn’t give a flip. There’s money to be made. But unfortunately, the planet will have to wait, lost in the background noise of daily life.

 

Environmental Initiatives Stepping Over Each Other

To be honest, whenever I hear about a new way of measuring sustainable production, I become more skeptical. This is because these claims are often based on a tissue of quasi-truths, if not outright lies, foundations lacking the ability to sustain the pressure of inquiry.

Environmental groups suffer from overlapping messages. When challenged by people often asking the simplest of questions, their responses can look weak and poorly framed to be understood by a broad audience. It’s a little like the medical community’s response to Covid—answers in the language of science accurately described the threat posed by the virus. Still, that language style had difficulty convincing many people to change their behavior and adopt new protections, such as wearing masks in public. It opened up the science to be criticized.

I believe our collective experience with Covid provides helpful lessons for environmental groups. Indeed, better packaging of the message of the harmful effects of Covid could have resonated more effectively with frightened, confused, and skeptical people. In short, the serious nature of the crisis could have been marketed better. The same goes for sustainability or circularity. These terms sound great until people try to explain them. They may be grounded in science and hard data, only what appears to be straight-forward, really isn’t upon closer examination.

 

Environmental Efforts are Noble and Needed

There are so many environmental groups. Indeed, the range and integrity of such groups and individuals are admirable. It’s a bright, fiercely dedicated group of doers. They shun the theoretical in favor of the practical. They want to make a difference that sticks.

But in their rush to make a difference, two problems emerge. First, these groups often collide, competing for airtime, while second, there’s a seeming indifference to the reality of today’s economics and, by extension, current global politics. It’s the second point that’s most worrisome. How does sustainability survive in a time of volatile economies, high inflation, and geopolitical uncertainties?

It may be hard for some environmentalists to stomach this: Companies are in the business to make money, not to save the planet. Our capitalist system provides the means and incentives to ensure that companies remain focused on shareholder returns, bottom lines, and sales. Environmental concerns? Lost in a rush for profits.

Virtually all sustainability programs use data to bolster their claims, although the methodology behind that data is often questioned. But how the data is presented makes an enormous difference in how it is perceived. For example, is it simply enough to say we’re “green” and backed up by such and such data? Or is it merely enough to say we’re giving back to the planet by planting trees as a carbon offset when our products continue to be shipped worldwide? And what about workers? They might as well be statistics in a deadly tally left to struggle in the industry’s wake.

But unfortunately, our industry, if anything, has done a perverse job of using such initiatives as superficial window-dressing, a marketing dodge to deflect the realities of how the business operates. For too long, the industry functioned with virtual impunity, and opaqueness was deliberately orchestrated because consumers often care less about how a garment was made than its price.

 

An Environmental Imperative in Conflict with Economic Reality

The economy today is out of balance. Inflation is way up, while consumer confidence is way down. Priorities have changed. Services have become more important for consumers than simply buying stuff—a bad omen for retailers. However, it’s also an opportunity for marketers to use sustainability messages to attract customers.

Inflation drives people to make decisions predicated on rising prices. Suppose sustainability is a cost to be passed on to the consumers. Should we be surprised if they look for cheaper clothing elsewhere?

And for our industry, that’s the question of the day. When is enough—enough? How much stuff should we produce in the name of profits? What’s more, clothing is essential, but fashion isn’t. It’s discretionary. Yet, fast fashion remains even though many environmentalists, brands, and consumers know that such practices are harmful to the environment and only add to the woes of production laborers worldwide.

This brings me back to data. Fact-finding, backed by sound research and supportable data, makes a lot of sense. Only how that data is used begs the question: When are facts bent to fit a story to sell more products? Our industry needs to wake up and focus on that. There’s no overarching set of environmental statistics proving the best way to be sustainable without a shadow of a doubt. All we have is conjecture, opinion, and suggestions of truth. In some ways, it’s kind of a moving target.

Look, our industry has its share of problems, and many good people work diligently to correct those ills. They should be supported and applauded for their efforts. But the time has come for the industry to take on its environmental and labor challenges and ditch deceptive sustainability marketing.