How can the “sustainable consumption” movement mainstream itself by becoming more accessible and thus inclusive and diverse? This year, I had the privilege of co-organizing the Erb Institute’s first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion panel, alongside fellow Erb student Kathy Tian. Knowing that retailers and marketers alike still see sustainable consumers as a niche consumer segment, our panelists proposed two solutions to mainstream sustainable consumption.
Gloria Hwang, CEO and founder of Thousand Helmet, a bike helmet company rooted in a socially driven mission of reducing bike-related fatalities, suggested that sustainability can be mainstreamed through marketing. Before Thousand, Hwang worked at the “One for One” shoe-giving pioneer, TOMS Shoes, as a social innovations manager. At TOMS, Hwang witnessed the power of effective brand-building and storytelling in not only driving the company’s One for One mission forward but also driving sales and revenue. Says Hwang, “If you are able to communicate an emotional point of difference in your product to your consumers, and if you are able to build a brand that represents values that consumers truly believe in, then consumer demand will follow—more consumers will be willing to buy and pay for your products.”
Hwang says, “It is limiting to say that the sustainable shopper is a niche and higher-income segment. If you demonstrate and lead with the business case, people will consume more of it, and industries will change. If you demonstrate that consumers are willing to pay more for or pick a lateral product based on sustainability attributes, the industry will change to follow suit.”
Building a brand rooted in values of sustainability is an opportunity for companies to capitalize on untapped consumer segments, and it can generate market demand for a firm’s products. Rather than companies viewing corporate social responsibility and sustainability initiatives as costs that sit under their supply chain or finance departments, firms can instead view them as sales and revenue-driving opportunities that sit under their marketing departments. Says Hwang, “At TOMS, sustainability and social responsibility sat within our ten-person marketing department. We knew that telling our stories and connecting people to our ‘One for One’ mission would create greater consumer demand for our products, and as a result, we invested heavily in brand and marketing.”
Leveraging retailer demand
An alternative solution, posed by Boma Brown-West, senior manager of consumer health at the Environmental Defense Fund’s corporate partnerships division, EDF+Business, is to leverage the demand from retailers for sustainable products to push consumer packaged goods companies to create more sustainable products. To date, these tactics have led EDF+Business and Brown-West to remove 23 million pounds of toxic chemicals from consumer products.
Boma-Brown West works with large retailers, such as Walmart and Target, whose buying power and environmental footprints are enormous, to establish and enforce sustainability policies. Her work focuses on removing toxic chemicals from consumer products, specifically products that fall under the beauty, baby care, personal care and household cleaning categories, and that go in and around our bodies. Consumers who demand safe and healthy products, now more than ever, are pushing retailers to keep these products in store and on shelves. And retailers are pushing their suppliers to adhere to these policies. Greater consumer and retailer demand for sustainable products has pushed consumer packaged goods giants, such as Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, to follow suit.
Brown-West says, “We knew that if sustainable products were only going to be on niche shelves, this wouldn’t help to democratize sustainable products in the marketplace. We have to make sustainable products become conventional products that we see in store and on shelves of large players like Walmart, who have huge marketplace power.”
Creating win-wins for business and the environment
Mainstreaming sustainability and the sustainable consumption movement begins by leading with the business case. Hwang exhibited the power of leveraging sustainability in brand marketing to unlock new consumer segments and revenue streams. Because consumers are willing to buy and pay more for sustainable products, brands rooted in sustainability can fulfill the function of generating market demand. Brown-West’s work demonstrates that mainstream retail players can respond to consumer demand for sustainable products, pushing suppliers and the consumer packaged goods industry to increase the availability of sustainable products to the mass-consumer market.
Hwang and Brown-West, both women of color, are leaders who look and think differently from current and previous environmental leaders. Ultimately, we need to pave the way for women like Hwang and Brown-West to come up with and execute innovative solutions that address issues in sustainability. Says Brown-West, “We have tremendous environmental challenges we are looking at today…. If we are going to tackle climate change in the next 10 or 15 years in a way that is just and equitable, we are going to need a whole host of people with a range of experiences, backgrounds and points of view to come up with solutions…. We need all kinds of different voices at the table.”