(by LH Lovins & Colette Crouse, 2012 NCS Intern)
18 December 2012
Ask any member of the Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group or Sustainable Apparel Coalition and they will tell you consumers are not the ones driving sustainability. Companies such as prAna, Patagonia and GoLite were weaving environmental good into the fibers of their operations long before ‘green’ became a buzzword. For them, using — or abusing — sustainability purely as a marketing strategy deflates the concept’s complexity, dilutes company values, and ultimately disserves their customer.
For Beth Jensen, head of the SWG, sustainability is not a marketing device but rather “the license to do business.” Director of Sustainability at prAna, Nicole Bassett, concurs: “Marketing becomes a laundry list — it’s organic, it’s fair trade, it’s made of recycled materials. … And we’ve completely destroyed the true essence of what we’re trying to get across in sustainability.”
For companies involved in the SWG and the SAC, communicating with consumers at the point of purchase is secondary to doing the right thing across their entire value chain. Sustainability is just better business: It mitigates supply chain risk, reduces resources, and protects the brand. It does not, however, lend itself to sexy marketing statements. The complex details of a sophisticated corporate sustainability program simply don’t fit well on a hang-tag.
This doesn’t trouble the best companies. For them, sustainability is embedded into their whole business model. It becomes the basis for connecting with their customers.
Bassett explains, “Operations is not inherently sexy; however, it is about values and principles, which is sexy because that’s what every human has. That values piece allows us to tell the operations story in a sexy way.”
Case in point: prAna recently eliminated 64% of plastic apparel bags from their supply chain, yet the move did not overtly lend itself to a PR success story because consumers never saw those bags. Says Bassett, “We couldn’t say, ‘Hey, we’ve found a solution to something you didn’t even know was a problem!’ Instead, we said, ‘Hey, we looked at our operations and noticed a disconnect between our values and the results.’” That’s what got people’s attention.
Values are essential to the success prAna and businesses like it enjoy because a growing consumer base cares about sustainability. Research from the PR giant Ogilvy shows that, all things equal, 82% of customers consider themselves green buyers. Companies with an authentic commitment to doing the right thing — even if it’s behind-the-scenes — have an important story to tell: Their brand aligns company and customer values of environmental and social responsibility. “Customers care that the brand has soul and is moving in the right direction,” says Kim Coupounas, Co-Founder and Chief Sustainability Officer at GoLite. “They need easy, bite-sized pieces of information to help them make good choices.”
Can these morsels of information feed larger, company-wide sustainability efforts? Absolutely. Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives at Patagonia, uses a divide-and-conquer strategy. He blends roles and responsibilities between companies and consumers to advance shared values. It’s growing sustainability from the inside out. And it works.
Explains Ridgeway, “In the apparel industry, half of the footprint of a product is in the hands of the people who use and care for it, which means that achieving our sustainability goals necessarily involves our customers.” Patagonia set out to do just that with its Common Threads Initiative, famously introduced through the company’s Buy Less campaign. The campaign began last year on the consumption celebration, Black Friday. Featuring a full-page ad in the New York Times with a big illustration of Patagonia’s best selling jacket, the campaign urged consumers, “Don’t buy this jacket.” Instead, it asked them to pledge to protect the planet by reducing excess consumption. “We did this to get people’s attention,” says Ridgeway. It did. In the midst of skyrocketing sales, 51,143 people took the pledge.
Patagonia’s success inspired GoLite to start its own product take-back program, I’m Not Trash. Like Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative, GoLite’s program aims to reduce consumerism by encouraging people not to buy what they do not need, and to bring used products back to be fixed or recycled.
Both companies have traditional marketers scratching their heads. It makes sense to align customer and company values around sustainability. But how can these businesses survive by asking people to buy less?
Because they’re smart; they know that value chain is the key.
Early on, Patagonia and others caught a rising wave of customer concern, a wave now approaching tsunami proportions. A recent study by consultants GlobeScan, SustainAbility and BBMG found that customers want to buy less stuff of higher quality. Their Regeneration Roadmap Study of consumers in the US, UK, Germany, Brazil, China and India found that two-thirds agreed: “As a society we need to consume a lot less (66% of those surveyed).” They also feel “a sense of responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society (65%).
Trading the risk that customers might buy a bit less of their product, today’s sustainability leaders gained bigger market share because values-oriented buyers wanted to shop at values-driven companies. By asking people to buy fewer products the companies made manifest their values. Selling products that embody values translates to brand equity.
Lookup “Values” on the GoLite website and you’ll find this: “Less is more. Less is liberation. You value adventure over advertising. You don’t want to clog the planet with more stuff. Therefore you GoLite. We didn’t invent this philosophy. You did.”
At Patagonia, Ridgeway is emphatic about aligning customer and company values: “Value chain is the key to achieving sustainability goals.” Patagonia, GoLite and prAna have all garnered consumer applause for their honesty, especially because they admit, “We may not be perfect, but we’re turning over rocks and trying to do our best,” says Bassett.
Patagonia drives sustainability from the inside, focusing on supply chain integrity, resource reduction, and risk management. But achieving these in the truest sense — and building brand loyalty in the process — requires external collaboration. Says Ridgeway, “We can only achieve our goals if we do so in conjunction with our customers. If we do it ourselves, we’re only half doing it.”
Like most Outdoor Industry Association members, these companies prioritize collaborative learning between businesses as well as between businesses and consumers. “Sustainability has to be owned by every single person if you want to succeed,” says Bassett, and the only way to get everybody on board is to educate them: “Sustainable education and critical thinking needs to be communicated to consumers. We need to build a smarter, more inquisitive consumer base.”
Fostering this base does not mean giving a laundry list on a hang-tag or “screaming sustainability from the rooftops,” says Coupounas. Nor does it mean presenting so much information that consumers end up overwhelmed. The best companies pique consumer interest at the point of purchase, then invite them to dig as deep as they want to online.
There’s a big reward for companies who take the time to engage consumers in ways that promote participation and critical thinking. Says Bassett, “Sending information out and also taking information in helps us to be more authentic as a company. We’re lucky to have a smart customer who pushes us and asks us difficult questions.”
Companies such as prAna, Patagonia, and GoLite are already selling values and harnessing the power of interested, knowledgeable consumers. They are reaping the rewards of growing sustainability from the inside to the outdoors. These companies have learned what others in the outdoor industry and beyond will soon confirm: informed and active consumers are not just your cheerleaders—they’re your essential partners in implementing a better world.