How to be greener and why it matters

In a previous article we talked about the virtues of running your business ethically. Today, we are going to focus on one aspect of ethics - environmentalism. In recent years, this single factor has become such a significant driver in people’s decision-making that it has led consumers to boycott brands, give up meat and change their politics. Environmental activism is no longer the province of an eccentric few; thanks to great leaders and charismatic campaigners - and maybe a collective feeling of dread - it’s now very much in the mainstream.

Making your business greener benefits you two-fold. Firstly, in a world where environmentalism is one of the most important factors in consumer decision-making, it makes you money. Secondly, and more importantly, it gives us (humans) a better chance of being able to continue living on a hospitable, biodiverse planet.

What do we mean by ‘green’?

It’s easy to say you want to be greener, but what does that actually mean? Environmentalism is a science, not a sentiment, so in order to be green you have to make a tangible difference in the real world.

We believe there are three key factors to consider when determining if a process is green.

  • How efficient is it? As in, how much of the energy consumed by this process is replaced by this process? An example is a toilet paper company that plants trees for every roll produced.
  • How much harm does it do? As in, how much pollution is caused as a by-product of this process? How many habitats are destroyed? How much is a population depleted?
  • What happens at the end of the process? Does it produce something that has to be thrown away, or can it be reused/recycled?

Will I lose money?

It’s true that switching to greener practices can be costly, especially if you have been working with non-green processes for years. The most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to do it all in one go. It’s better to be 1% greener than to attempt to be 100% green but fail because you can’t afford to do it.

Start small and see how it goes. Focus on just one element of your business and make it as green as you can. You may find that going a little bit green ends up being profitable enough for you that you can afford to take action on a more global scale.

On the flipside, the reputation cost of being found out as irresponsible, exploitative or corrupting can be monumental. Companies that are proven to be actively damaging the environment struggle to recover from such scandals. The odour of Volkswagon’s emissions fiddle is still lingering in the noses of drivers who care about sustainable transportation.

Consumers have no sympathy for companies that make no effort to move towards a sustainable goal, and they will in time abandon you for competitors that align better with their values. It’s up to you to weigh up the costs versus the benefits of going green.

Can I fake it?

In this age of information, brands are transparent. If going green is something you want to try in your business, you have to mean it. Consumers won’t be duped into buying your product just because you say it’s green - you will have to prove it. They want to know that you genuinely care about the environment, not just about publicity and making a profit. If you fail to convince them, they will blacklist you. Claiming green credentials that you don’t have just to drum up publicity is known as green-washing, and if you’re caught doing this consumers will be unforgiving.

Iceland was on everyone’s social media feed last year with their ‘banned’ palm oil advert, which showed the effects of palm deforestation on orangutan populations. They promised to remove palm oil from all their branded products - an admirable enterprise, you may think. However, it turned out that rather than reduce the number of palm oil products on their shelves, they simply removed their label from those products. Looking back at the whole video campaign with a cynical eye, it starts to feel like a cunning publicity stunt set up to play on people’s emotions, rather than a genuine desire to reduce palm oil products.

Consumers are surprisingly willing to accept failure, as long as you’re upfront about it. If you don’t have a perfectly green product, being open about your failings can go a long way towards earning consumer trust. If you can’t meet your goals, don’t try to dodge the issue by removing your logo from the product. Show that you’re aware of the issue, which proves you care. Then demonstrate how you plan to improve, which shows you are dedicated to getting better. This level of honesty will go a long way, and earn you loyalty if you can demonstrate real improvement.

The most important things to remember in your green initiative are:

  • Don’t try to achieve so much that you set yourself up for failure.
  • Be authentic; don’t use environmentalism as a sales gimmick.
  • Be honest; admit your weaknesses and have a plan for change.

There are countless ways you can become greener across your business. Here are a few examples.

Your product

This is a big one, and the most tangible as far as the consumer is concerned. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What materials is it made from?
  • How is it made?
  • Where is it made?
  • What is its transportation footprint?
  • How long does it last?
  • Does it consume energy as you use it?
  • Is it reusable?
  • How do I dispose of it?

If any of the answers make you cringe, take a look at how you can improve your methods to create a greener product. Check out this list of the 10 smartest sustainable products from Time as inspiration for your own product development. On the Green Product Award website you can find a range of innovative products that have been recognised for their sustainability.

Your supply chain

Can you prove to your customers that your supply chain is green from start to finish? In this video, Markus Mutz talks about how we can use technological innovation to provide evidence of how sustainable and ethical a supply chain really is. This technology gives consumers the power to choose between products based on the journey that product has taken throughout its lifetime. Using GPRS tracking, RFID tags, QR codes, and other technology, a consumer can potentially access accurate information about each product they buy, and a brand can honestly promote each individual product as having had an ethical journey from production to consumption.

Having access to this evidence means we no longer have to trust a company when they say their supply chain is ethical. We can see the proof for ourselves and use that knowledge to empower our purchasing decisions. This technology is being prototyped and trialled today. In the future it may steer the way people shop on a daily basis.

Your packaging

Another biggie. People are becoming increasingly intolerant of useless packaging and excessive plastic. Take a look at your packaging. Can you make it 100% recycled and recyclable? If not, can you make it so that it can be reused for something else? Get creative with your packaging design to give it more value.

The Edinburgh Skincare Company makes environmentally friendly hand cream bars. These bars not only negate the need for a plastic dispenser bottle, they also come wrapped in a 100% biodegradable wrapper and a tin that you can either keep or return to them to reuse.

Your marketing

Your marketing itself can be green. Can you give your customers a paper-free option? Can you make your print brochures obsolete by making your website catalogue amazing? If you have an external marketing agency, how green are they? They’re representing you, so it matters if they have an environmental policy or not.

Go a step further and promote yourself by doing something green. Run a community project to tidy up a local green area, support an environmental charity, attend activist events. Actions speak louder than words, and demonstrating that you’re doing green things is a much more powerful message than simply saying you are.

Check out Patagonia’s ‘The Footprint Chronicles’, a global initiative that shows the company’s green standards at work across their entire supply chain.

Your internal practices

It’s not all about the stuff the customer sees. You can improve your green score by looking at your internal processes. Here are some ideas:

  • Eliminate plastic bottles, cutlery and takeaway containers.
  • Install an electric vehicle charging station in your car park?
  • Make it easy for your staff to recycle.
  • Implement a printing policy.
  • Use energy-efficient lightbulbs or lights on a motion sensor.
  • Implement a walk to work, cycle to work, or lift-share scheme.
  • Give your team branded reusable water bottles.
  • Turn off electronics when not in use.
  • Invest in energy-efficient appliances.
  • Allow telecommuting and working from home.
  • Video conference with clients instead of travelling.
  • Try a four-day week.
  • Use collaborative online workspaces instead of physical offices.
  • Get regular energy audits.

Why it matters

As brands in the public domain, we have a responsibility to be better, and an opportunity to lead the way. Functioning in a more sustainable manner is not only better for the planet and everything living on it (if that’s not enough of an incentive), it gives you the chance to set yourself apart from your competitors.

If consumers have a choice between two companies who make exactly the same product at exactly the same price point, but one company has demonstrated in all sorts of different ways that they care about the environment, that their product has been produced sustainably, that their supply chain is ethical, and so on, who do you think the consumer will choose?

It’s a matter of survival in all senses of the word - survival of the many diverse species that live on this planet, and survival of your business, too.

Here’s a talk from WWF’s Jason Clay on how big brands can help save biodiversity. ‘We need to begin to manage this planet as if our life depends on it, because it does.’


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