Green in the Black

By Robb Shurr January 17, 2017

So, you’re a retailer who’s thinking about promoting the sustainability of the brands you carry. You’re only thinking about it because you don’t know if consumers care … and you need to prioritize the little time and shelf space you have to making sales.

We get it. But sustainability and sales aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Through interviews with real life consumers, retailers, and brands, we’ve learned about best practices for framing sustainability in the right way. Below, we’ll walk you through some pitfalls companies encounter when talking about sustainability, then offer some pointers for how to approach it in a way that increases sales.

Pitfalls:

Making a blanket statement about sustainability

The BS meter raises with every exclamation of, “We’re sustainable!” or “It’s sustainable!” (especially when paired with a photo of hands holding a growing plant). Puke.

Even the label “sustainability” is flawed for many consumers:

  • At best, it’s an empty cliché:
    “What does sustainability really mean? Is this company really making substantial changes or is it just lip service to gain quick points?”
  • At worst, it’s a risk:
    “If this jacket is made with sustainable materials, will it still be warm or waterproof? Will this cost more and not even work?”

Heralding work that’s expected

Consumers expect companies to be socially and environmentally responsible. So ho-hum accomplishments don’t really impress consumers or affect purchases.

Of course consumers want to hear about the accomplishments of their favorite brands, but when considering a store-wide campaign, ask, “Is really headline worthy or should this be pushed out through a brand’s own website or social media?”

Save your energy for the stories that matter most to your consumers.

Thinking sustainability doesn’t matter

It’s true that consumers rank attributes in this order:

  • Technical/functional features and/or style
  • Price
  • Brand
  • Manufacturing location (Made in …)
  • Sustainability

However, when done right, sustainability is embedded in the other attributes. And while consumers would also say they wouldn’t pay more for “sustainability” on its own, they will pay more to stay loyal to trusted brands. Sustainability builds that trust and respect

A company’s good choices also have power to tip the scales when all else is equal. Once a consumer likes what a brand is selling, the good work they do can be a deciding factor for increased brand loyalty and love.

“Stio is a relatively new brand, and I’ve bought from them simply because I liked their aesthetic. But recently I looked to see where they source their down and was happy to see that, like Patagonia, they use cruelty-free sources. I know that I’d definitely buy from them again over other brands because of that.” – Outdoor consumer

Which brings us to Pointer #1!

 

Pointers

Get the best story

Ask manufacturers to tell you what they’re doing … in the context of their brand purpose and products. Moreover, if they can send designed pieces to post in your store, you’ll have even better ways to show their work in a powerful (read: not boring) way.

Stories could include:

  • A new sleeping pad that’s not only lighter and tougher, but also reduces waste in manufacturing or uses non-toxic glues
  • A company’s generous family-leave package that allows parents to take time with their new babies
  • A manufacturer that makes sure natural materials like wool and down come from humane sources, providing warmth and technical features in a smart and thoughtful way
  • A group of companies—even competitors—that joins together to tackle a big issue in the outdoor industry
  • A ski company that speaks out against climate change and makes radical changes—all to protect the sport they love

Our company’s focus has always been bigger than just to make a profit. We’ve always found that when we just focus on the lifestyle, the brand, and being responsible to the sport, our business does better and profits follow. This means getting more women, kids, and young adults interested in snowboarding as well as having more awesome snow.” – Donna Carpenter (from OR Breaking Trail.)

The options for great storytelling are endless, but need to be specific.

Make it easy, obvious, and convenient

Consumers want to hear the good stories, especially about brands they love. Make it easy and clear for them to discover what manufacturers are doing.

Are the brands you carry on a mission to protect the wild places? To make single-use waste a thing of the past? To care for the environment not only in the backcountry but also in the cities and towns where products are made?

Ask for clear, specific, and meaningful stories from the brands you carry. Then, highlight these messages the same way you’d sell a new technical feature—lead with the vision and back up with the specs.

Generally speaking, I don’t go out of my way to research a company’s practices, but expect to see it in their branding … I expect that if they have something worth bragging about, they’re going to make it obvious to me as a consumer. If I see or hear nothing, then I assume they have nothing good to share.” – Outdoor consumer

Smart employees

Your employees are an important, trusted source for guiding consumers in their purchases. Knowing details about manufacturers’ good practices gives employees another point of conversation and elevates their expertise.

If they can speak thoughtfully about how the quality of a product ensures it will last (rather than be trash) or how a manufacturer has been committed to improving its supply chain for the last 10 years (and the relationships built along the way ensure the best materials and craftsmanship), they can guide a conversation and increase overall sales.

Stand for something

Not every retailer and manufacturer needs to be a full-fledged activist, but the best ones engage their consumers beyond the latest cookstove technology or style of plaid.

Connecting around a topic encourages people to engage with you in a new way, especially if you host events or speakers. Taking a stand for something builds relationships, trust, and ultimately sales.

“[REI’s] #optoutside campaign was genius, and it made me take note. I respect them as a company but…I’m not sure why, other than giving me money back for purchases made, and for encouraging people to be outdoors.” – Outdoor consumer

And beyond marketing …

Like manufacturers, not everything you’ll do for your retail operations, supply chain, or employees is headline worthy.

But also like manufacturers, retailers need to consider these issues for their long-term viability. Making operational improvements reduces your business risk and can save you money in the short and long-term.

“The bottom line is that, like many businesses, ours is premised on an endless supply of resources and cheap energy. And regardless of how you look at it, those times are ‘a changing.’ Businesses have to be smarter about how they do things.” – David Labistour, MEC (from OR Breaking Trail)

In the end, marketing sustainability shouldn’t feel like a drag. And, when done correctly, talking about companies’ good work has the potential to engage your customers in a meaningful way.