Companies are changing the way they market their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives – more and more of them are becoming increasingly transparent about their supply chains and are fostering dialogue with their customers, says Per Grankvist, editor and founder of CSRiPraktiken.se, and senior advisor on sustainability to multinational corporations such as the Coca-Cola Company in Sweden.
Companies such as Nike, Gap and Hewlett-Packard have led the way by making information available online regarding their supply chains. Openness builds trust and trust translates into transactions, argues Grankvist. The one thing many corporations see as an Achilles heel may turn into their greatest strength, he says: “Suddenly, the supply chain is the ‘new black’, to misquote a common fashion phrase, as customers are looking for brands that are authentic and honest.”
He emphasises that it’s not about being flawless but being open, citing Timberland which invites the public to comment on its CSR initiatives on a new website which has the aim of fostering dialogue in discussion groups.
Diana Verde Nieto, founder and CEO of Clownfish, a UK-based sustainability branding and communications consultancy, adds that it’s about the journey, not the destination. Patagonia, for example, allows consumers to follow the supply chain of their garment online “where even ‘the bad’ is discussed, enabling a transparent view (and) demonstrating their ongoing commitment to sustainability.”
Nieto believes forging strategic alliances strengthens outreach. “The power of two brands working together is stronger than just one working on its own. For example, Marks and Spencer partnered Oxfam to launch Britain's biggest-ever clothes recycling scheme. They raise funds for Oxfam while recycling, thereby reducing the amount of unwanted clothing that ends up in landfills. The UK currently throws away one million tonnes of clothing every year.”
Subtle but effective messages
Yet too many companies have started communicating their CSR efforts too early in too conspicuous a way, laments Grankvist. The results are big ads, bold press statements and lame results. The messages lack substance, he says.
In contrast, he cites Coca-Cola in Sweden which has successfully educated the drivers in its delivery fleet on ‘eco-driving’, saving fuel and reducing CO2 emissions. The effort was not communicated in paper ads in the environmental press nor in media releases, but on small stickers on the doors of the delivery vehicles, stating that eco-driving education is one of the many ways Coca-Cola contributes to the environment in Sweden. The target audience is the commuter sitting next to the delivery vehicles in traffic jams.
“By strategically placing little real, relevant and responsive messages throughout the organisation, the company’s credibility is enforced as people are able to validate that it is indeed ‘walking the talk’,” he says.
Engage with stakeholders
According to Nieto, it is important to engage with stakeholders, especially consumers and critics. Worldwide, consumers are calling on brands to take responsibility for addressing the social, environmental and ethical impact of their operations. “Engaging with external stakeholders, thought leaders, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and experts is crucial; they are the people who can verify your story and help minimise the risks of ‘greenwash’ and media backlash.”
The risks of greenwashing
Greenwashing, the perception that some companies are misleading consumers regarding their environmental practices and/or benefits of their products or services, can damage a firm’s reputation, brand value and loyalty, Nieto says. It also wastes money.
For Grankvist, greenwashing is a sign that companies have not understood the media logic of the 21st century. A journalist, he says, will always be on the lookout for the things that aren't said – or the inverted facts of what is being reported – focusing on the 80 per cent reduction still to be made, rather than the 20 per cent reduction in emission achieved.
Channels of communication
The diverse channels of communication that companies are now using, have a significant environmental impact themselves – an area previously overlooked. “Sustainable marketing is about dematerialising communication,” says Nieto. “That means increasing the emotional value of brands and their messages, but decreasing the environmental impact of the communication.”
Beyond minimising environmental impact, sustainable marketing is about brands creating partnerships with external stakeholders to become change-makers, and building credible communication and amplifying the impact of what they are saying.
Grankvist and Nieto took part in a panel discussion on current trends in CSR marketing and the risks of greenwashing at the first European Net Impact conference held recently in Geneva.