Serving Up Humble Environmental Pie
June 12, 2008
By Michelle Brisebois
Michelle Brisebois argues that a business’ quiet environmental stewardship can have more impact than an in-your-face program.
When Maclean’s magazine publishes a cover story titled “Why your grocery bill is about to hurt,” you’ve got to expect people to notice. When the article goes on to explain how our over-consumption of fossil fuels has resulted in stress on our food chain, you’ve got to expect people to connect the dots. When consumers realize that those hungry bellies in developing countries and spiking prices here are the direct result of our attempts to use crops for biofuel production, you’ve got to expect people to begin asking tough questions. Some of those tough questions may be directly related to the eco-friendly practices of your business. How do we talk to our customers about sustainability? Do we boast about “being green” or do we take a more humble approach?
|Studies show environmental practices can reduce costs, improve staff morale and attract new customers.
Trend watchers have been wondering if the environment would continue to be front-page news. It could have been flavour-of-the-week bumped to merely a footnote by other stories such as the struggling economy. Though awareness of global warming may have been heightened by celebrities and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, it’s now hitting our pocketbooks. This is shaping up to be “the summer of fuel” – for our bodies and our cars. In a supply-and-demand economy we know that prices go up when demand outpaces supply. While the supply shortages for grains and fossil fuels may have as many political roots as they do environmental, most consumers will only make an environmental connection to the shortages. This awareness will likely prompt consumers to seek out retailers who embrace environmentally friendly practices. You’re probably already fielding questions about the packaging you use, your lighting and even your waste disposal practices. We want to make these changes, but as retailers we struggle with what changes to make and whether or not we should promote ourselves as “being green.” If we brag about our environmental stewardship – could it blow up in our faces if we’re not doing a good job in some areas?
It may ease your mind to know that very big companies are struggling with this same question. Executive teams around the world are wondering what changes to make, what the resulting costs will be to make those changes and whether or not to publicize the fact they’re trying to be ecologically friendly. After all, Al Gore, patron saint of our ozone layer, is criticized for travelling by air to his speaking engagements. One wonders if critics believe he should have kayaked to the Environmental Summit. Green washing is a term coined to describe corporate environmental policies that are more about advertising one’s green stance than actually making viable changes in behaviour. None of us wants to be accused of that. Taking out a full-page ad to trumpet our sustainable practices feels opportunistic and could be construed as being insincere. The answer seems to be to walk softly and carry a recyclable stick.
Studies conducted by Waterloo and York universities confirm that solid environmental practices can reduce costs, improve staff morale and attract new customers. On the flip side, not being environmentally friendly can make it more difficult to get bank loans, and insurance coverage. The professors confirm that many large companies have a stated bias to only partner with vendors who are able to prove their “green” track record. Banks may think twice about loaning you money if your business practices could make you vulnerable to a lawsuit related to harming the environment. Insurers will also take sustainability into account.
Sustainability is the key word here. Make small, manageable changes that will not cripple your business strategically or financially. Look for quick wins. Large retailers like Loblaw have set the benchmark for canvas grocery bags. Get one of your own with your logo on it and sell it at cost or a very small margin. Ninety-nine cents is the benchmark currently. Think of the bags as walking advertisements for your business. Avoid the impulse to print something on the bags like “Gail’s Bakery is saving the environment by selling this bag.” Consumers are smart; they can connect the dots on their own. Anything more would be going too far. Reusable beverage bottles and thermal coffee mugs can be nice additions to your product line and help divert plastic bottles from landfills. If you offer sit-down dining, consider a weekly or monthly “earth hour” where customers can dine by candlelight. The menu can be tailored for items that won’t need to be cooked. Make your operation bicycle friendly: have a place for customers to park and lock their bikes securely. Are your plastic sampling glasses and cutlery recyclable in your area? If so, make sure they go into the blue box and if not, source items that are recyclable. Your municipality’s website should have lots of information to help you make the right choices. Your customers are watching for these small changes and you will gain their respect for making them purposefully and discreetly. You do, however, need to make sure your team understands completely where you stand since they will be fielding most of the questions.
Consider appointing a few key employees to recommend, implement, and audit all environmentally sustainable policies. Make sure your entire team knows what’s being implemented and why. If environmental stewardship becomes part of your business culture, it will be obvious – no sweeping announcements, posters or boasting necessary.
Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in helping companies grow their brands. Michelle can be reached at On Trend Strategies by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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