Sustainability used to be simple. A question of offsetting some carbon here, introducing some recyclable packaging there. But it’s not just today’s consumer who is more demanding about brands’ sustainability efforts. Every stakeholder from employees to partners and investors is taking a vested interest in how ethical, responsible and environmental companies are. And that’s the way it should be.
The Edelman 2020 Trust Barometer suggests that most employees want their CEOs to take an active role in speaking out about the environment and diversity. It also found that it’s not just niche communities that take an active interest in sustainability; 64% of consumers would consider themselves to be ‘belief-driven buyers’. They will buy, or boycott, brands based on their social values.
We all know that actions speak louder than words, and that holds true here too. It’s not enough to simply take a stand and voice your support around social issues. We saw many brands align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and have spoken out about income inequality and diversity, but those who have simply voiced their agreement but not taken active steps to redress the situation soon find themselves the target of disapproval.
"Today it’s the brands who aren’t engaging in the sustainability conversation that are the outliers."
Even brands with generally positive associations can find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. The ever-cheerful Yorkshire Tea Twitter account came under fire for not weighing in on the BLM movement quickly enough, resulting in a Twitter user praising them for not supporting BLM altogether. The account demonstrated the value of not being goaded into a knee-jerk reaction by saying it was “taking time to educate itself”. But it’s easy to see what a balancing act it is to get the tone right especially with the pressures of the ‘immediate’ nature of social media.
Yorkshire Tea’s experience is also a powerful reminder that there is no such thing as a brand that is or isn’t ‘allowed’ to align with a powerful purpose or point of principle. UK minister James Cleverley accused Ben & Jerry’s of virtue signalling after Unilever’s ice cream brand weighed in on the government’s record on refugees. Posting a Twitter thread for home secretary, Priti Patel’s attention, Cleverley shot back: “Can I have a large scoop of statistically inaccurate virtue signalling with my grossly overpriced ice-cream please.”
Ben & Jerry’s could be said to have been ahead of the ethical curve since its inception in 1978. The founders built social enterprise in from the beginning, calling the focus on people and product its ‘double dip’. Then, it was the exception. Today, brands stand out for not being socially engaged and this is where Cleverley’s comments were tone deaf. There is no such thing as being ‘qualified’ to follow and demonstrate purpose. Nor is communicating your values or calling out bad behaviour ‘virtue signalling’.
The sustainability message, like all great marketing, has to be a story that gets the point across, engages the audience and reflects the true nature of the organisation behind it. It doesn’t need to be overly political, or ‘worthy’ to get the message across. Being good for the planet doesn’t need to be boring. Alpro’s latest campaign, Glug Glug Yum created by VMLY&R highlights positive lifestyle switches that dial up the enjoyment and get rid of the hair shirt. But it must always be rooted in authentic behaviours. Glug Glug Yum may be a humorous campaign, but it is part of the company’s five-year Health and Sustainability Pledge to encourage more plant-based, responsible consumption.
But, as they say, the way to hell is paved with good intentions and it’s a mistake to underestimate just how engaged consumers are in your brand’s sustainable credentials. The loftier your ideals, the further you have to fall if you fail to live up to them. Plant-based milk drink, Oatly, has cultivated a passionate and evangelical following of customers. They wholeheartedly believe their buying choices have the ability to contribute directly to the planet’s wellbeing. So, when they discovered the company had sold a 10% stake in the business to Blackstone, an investment firm liked to the deforestation of the Amazon as well as supporting Trump, customers rushed to Twitter to announce a boycott of the oat milk brand.
There is undoubtedly a risk in speaking out. No organisation or individual is 100% squeaky clean, despite best efforts. There will always be room for improvement. But today it’s the brands who aren’t engaging in the sustainability conversation that are the outliers. And as long as companies understand that their role is not necessarily to be the best, but instead to always aspire and actively pursue being better, then we should see the end of virtue signalling, and the growth of virtue, full stop.
This article was first published in BITE.