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.