The business world is undergoing a dramatic shift as it begins to value sustainability as a worthy policy to pursue. It is no longer simply a niche strategy but rather a necessity for continued success. Many businesses today are recognising the competitive opportunities to be gained by pursuing sustainability.
One of the key features of this new business model is the heightened level of consumer engagement. This should come as little surprise seeing as consumer demand is one of the driving forces behind sustainability.
Successful sustainable companies are using this relationship extensively to help inform their sustainability practice. Here’s how
The increased feedback and knowledge integration between retailers and consumers is necessary to ensure life-cycle assessments of products. Sustainability cannot be tackled in isolation; we must consider all elements of the integrated supply-chain from material source to end-of-life disposal. The vertical nature of the issue means we must create an inter-level dialogue and build relationships of compromise, trust and understanding.
Case example: Clothing Industry
Companies such as Patagonia and Levi Strauss & Co. have made their names as successful sustainable companies. Both companies also have a very high level of engagement with their customers. They have launched end-of-life programs to re-capture material that would otherwise be disposed of. They are both active in educating customers of their responsibilities to reduce energy-use in caring for their products. By creating an open dialogue and extensive information transfers, they have built strong relationships with their customers. Whilst businesses are held accountable by consumer demand, they also possess the means to encourage sustainable behaviour change within their customer base.
There has been some critique of the push by companies to increase consumer engagement on sustainability. Research shows that consumer demand for sustainable practice is generally below 5%. The other 95% are purely price driven and will not spend outside their margins. What this means is that companies heralding consumer engagement know full well its value. Companies see this tactic as a form of ‘risk reduction’. Where sustainability has become a necessary policy, businesses must be seen to be responsible and caring. ‘Consumer engagement‘ as a term arose at a similiar time to the greenwashing controversies. It is a way for businesses to cover their backs and ensure that consumers know exactly what they are doing to be sustainable.
As always, it is extremely challenging to track the motivations of individuals, let alone companies. Nevertheless, I would argue that the overall outcomes of this phenomenon are certainly positive. Consumers do feel a greater sense of engagement in influencing product sustainability. Businesses have been successful in encouraging customers to consider their impact on the life-cycle of products. Many companies have also seen financial gains from increased consumer engagement. Building relationships not only strengthens brand loyalties, but allows companies to tailor products to demand. On the whole, consumer engagement is a win-win scenario for both businesses and consumers.
Acacia Smith is a New Zealander now based in London. She holds a bachelor degree and postgraduate diploma from Victoria University of Wellington. She has worked for the Council for International Development (CID) and more recently in Bolivia for CIWY, a network of private parks for the rehabilitation and conservation of Amazonian fauna. Acacia is passionate about sustainability and the role businesses can play in promoting a better, more sustainable future.