Brands hold significant power in climate change battle

Research firms are releasing reports on green consumer trends with increasing frequency, helping businesses align their offerings and messaging to capture the growing market for sustainable goods and services.

Beyond direct marketing implications, such research uncovers a significant opportunity to engage consumers around personal sustainability, low hanging fruit with broad benefits.

The numbers make this clear. According to a report from the Shelton Group, the green-leaning population continues to increase, comprising 77 percent of those surveyed. Yet, these same individuals still prioritize cost over ecological factors and lack a clear understanding of issues like climate change.

The Hartmann Group's sustainability research did a more detailed analysis, classifying respondents as core, midlevel or periphery sustainability supporters. Those in the core (a minority) are willing to put the environment first and spend more, but the rest mirror Shelton's sample.

Clearly, consumers could be inspired to go further and show a willingness to do so. Brands hold significant power over hearts and minds, which could be used to drive such positive change as well as revenue. The opportunity goes beyond selling green products or services to include education on using products more sustainably and tips for reducing one's ecological footprint overall.

It may seem counterintuitive to engage shoppers in environmental activities that don't directly improve profits, but this serves multiple business goals.

• It increases brand reputation by building positive associations around the brand. Repeated studies show individuals are more likely to support and recommend brands they view as good corporate citizens.

• Current rates of resource consumption and greenhouse gas buildup simply can't be maintained if business and society are to thrive. The more we support broader efforts around conservation, pollution prevention, waste reduction, recycling and the like, the more we safeguard our ongoing operations and quality of life.

• Making environmental issues more top of mind and relevant for the general public can drive green purchasing. To size up the prize: A GMA/Deloitte study found that 95 percent of shoppers indicated an interest in buying green products, but only 63 percent look for them when shopping. Letting sustainability slip from shoppers' minds means lost sales.

• Consumer-facing efforts can double as powerful tools to support employee engagement around environmental issues, a key strategy for corporate sustainability, by providing high-impact messaging and enhancing the credibility of internal programs.

• The lifecycle impact of an environmental impact is determined by producers and consumers. It's important to help all stakeholders understand how they contribute to the end result, and build a sense of individual responsibility across everyone involved.

• As we continue to face growing economic, social and environmental challenges, empowering people to take steps that benefit the environment and communities, and often save money, is simply the right thing to do.

There are several excellent examples of companies that are already undertaking these efforts, realizing benefits for business and the greater good.

• Starbucks' "Shared Planet" platform includes a pledge for individuals to volunteer in their communities and bring their own to-go mugs. This certainly helps Starbucks save costs associated with cups, but stands to affect broader resource savings and support good causes in need of a helping hands.

• Clif Bar & Co launched a "2 Mile Challenge" in 2008, inviting participants to use their bike instead of a car for one 2-mile trip a week. This enhanced the company's reputation with bikers, a core target, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and changing participants' habits for good.

• PepsiCo kicked off an "eco-challenge," with a website sharing ideas for individual action with updates on PepsiCo's progress in the same areas. This helps increase the availability of recycled materials and water-key resources for PepsiCo's packaging and products, while driving wider environmental protection.

Actively helping consumers become a deeper shade of green is clearly critical and beneficial in many ways. Ready to engage?

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