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Let’s be real: Consumers want brands to walk the walk on sustainability

(Source: Bigstock)

From managing greenwashing to authentic storytelling and tackling the haters on social media, the journey towards genuine sustainability is long and challenging for modern retailers. 

According to a new report from Inside Retail and Klarna called Going beyond: New insights for retailers embracing sustainability, 69 per cent of shoppers have started with a new brand because they admire its positive impact activities, but 59 per cent have also begun shopping at a brand – and then dropped it when it faced backlash about what it was actually doing.

Last week, retail experts Michael Elias, founder of eco-friendly textile business Upparel, Mark Fletcher, head of insights at Inside Retail and Matt Foley, commercial lead of SME at Klarna discussed the unique challenges retailers are now facing when it comes to becoming more sustainable. Here were some of the key takeaways from that conversation.

Share your story

As more consumers spend time online, particularly since Covid hit, it’s important that brands make the effort to engage with them by openly sharing their stories. 

“It’s about how you present yourself and communicate through social media the impact that you’re making and your sustainability goals. It’s not about sharing your products all the time,” suggested Elias. 

According to the Klarna report, 47 per cent of consumers say that it’s not only important that brands are adopting sustainable practices, but they’re also seen to be doing the right thing.

“What’s important to them is that you are doing something, you’re communicating it, and they can see that what you’re doing is significant,” added Fletcher.

You’ve got to walk the walk

But it’s not enough for brands to simply talk about their sustainability efforts on social media, it needs to be backed up with evidence of their work, pointed out Fletcher. 

“They’re looking for quite tangible demonstrations, not broad claims of doing the right thing. And consumers are very, very conscious of organisations just doing things for their own publicity. So their radar for detecting things that are perhaps a little smelly is very, very strong. They’re very suspicious,” he warned. 

Does greenwashing actually exist?

Consumers are very aware of greenwashing these days and will not hesitate to call out brands they feel are not living up to their sustainability claims. According to the new Klarna report, 48 per cent of consumers want retailers’ efforts to be authentic and consistent.

However, Elias questioned many of the accusations that consumers have made against brands and their sustainability efforts (or lack thereof). When Upparel first launched as a sock brand called Manrags, the business did not actually have a sustainable focus until it removed a little plastic pin from the label of their socks. The brand shared this news with its followers on social media, who then commended it for taking the first steps on their sustainability journey. 

“Removing that pin made an impact. Had people not celebrated that, it wouldn’t have pushed us to do the next thing and to do more. So for me, if a brand or an organisation is doing something positive, we need to celebrate it. Because through that the brand might do the next thing because people have responded well,” he said. 

“I think the constant finger pointing and [saying]: “You can do more, you can do more” absolutely works for established brands – that’s where the pressure is coming for them. But for new brands that are already thinking about sustainability at the beginning, we should celebrate what they’re doing and that encourages them.”

When it goes wrong, don’t procrastinate on social media

Several well-meaning brands have faced public backlash on social media and often, the problem lies in how they have (or have not) responded. And unfortunately, if consumers lose faith in one aspect of your business, that will impact how they view other areas, creating a snowball effect.

“For example, if it turns out that there’s been an issue with underpaying workers in a business, consumers will lose trust and that will transfer over to other aspects of the business. We have to be aware that these things can happen very quickly,” suggested Fletcher. 

“If there is an issue raised on social media, businesses have to be on the front foot and talk about it. It’s very important to consumers that they’ve recognised the issue, addressed it quickly [and said] how it won’t happen again. All those things can earn a degree of forgiveness from consumers.”

Focus on solving a problem for consumers

From what Foley has seen through his work at Klarna, some of the most innovative start-up retailers around the globe are solely aimed at developing solutions to consumer issues. 

“A lot of businesses are starting with sustainability first, and then coming in with the product. They’re starting with a great message and ethos, then launching maybe just one product,” explained Foley. Those businesses will slowly start to launch more products as they keep sustainability at the forefront of everything they do, taking consumers on the journey with them.

“Then there are those that are two to three years in and genuinely want to make a difference, but don’t know where to start,” he noted. “There are so many levers that brands can pull to start that journey. As a business owner, it can become overwhelming when you see certain brands like Pangaia, which have redefined sustainability. It can be hard to know where to start.”

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