We all know what we should say when someone asks us what we mean by sustainability. Peace and harmony. Understanding. Symbiosis. Respect. Wind farms. Trees! But as psychologists we know that just because we say something it doesn’t mean that’s how we actually behave.
The truth is, I don’t particularly care or feel bad about not behaving in a sustainable way. Don’t get me wrong; the day that I can afford an electric car (how cool will that be), I will be on it like a shot. But right now, I don’t feel like I need to change my behaviour, because frankly, I don’t feel like I’m the problem.
Where Sustainability Marketing is at
In this article, the CEO of Sainbury’s is reported as saying that it is a “challenge” to “inspire” customers to adopt sustainable values, and that Sainsbuys have been consulting other supermarkets for advice. The head of unilever has described similar difficulties.
“The trouble is that the environment is somebody else’s problem and people feel powerless. That’s why with our corporate brand we’ve been focussing on small actions and big difference. We need to use our broad consumer base to say ‘you individually are making small actions but you multiplied by 100 million – that’s a big difference’. That’s the way we’re going to try to engage people in this.”
It’s a perfect case in point of how I think retailers underestimate the intelligence of shoppers, and demonstrate a pitiful understanding of what it means to inspire someone.
If you want to inspire someone to do something, you need to lead by example. The most inspiring manager I ever worked under (ironically, at a supermarket) once told me “You should never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself”. That’s why these sustainability campaigns aren’t working. Supermarkets are trying to figure out how to get consumers to make sacrifices and change their behaviour, without making the same sacrifices themselves.
Instead of trying to sell consumers sustainability, supermarkets should invest A LOT more effort into behaving in ways that reduce their carbon footprint. One retailer that seems to be making an effort is Sainsburys. They have committed to a 2020 sustainability plan that outlines 20 clear goals to move towards long-term sustainability.
They’ve already begun putting their money where their mouth is, having installed around 70,000 solar panels on 169 stores nationwide, making it the biggest solar power generator in Europe.
Sceptics have suggested that they aren’t going far enough. But at least they’re setting goals within a realistic deadline. TESCO in contrast have outlined plans to be zero carbon by 2050 – ambitious, and it’s going to be a long wait to see if they make good on these promises. It also seems like an unrealistic goal. Are they really going to be able to turn 6,351 stores worldwide into zero carbon stores?
Sadly, most companies have no such plans. In fact, this article highlights that that almost half of the UK’s biggest companies do not have targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What example are these companies setting for the public?
How to inspire real change
People aren’t going to change their behaviour on the back of a clever marketing campaign that makes them feel like they belong to some kind of movement. Remember Kony 2012? However, the more that companies begin behaving regularly in sustainable and eco-friendly ways, the more that will become the norm, and the more likely people will be to follow suit.
Currently, this isn’t the norm. The norm is maximising profits, increasing market share then buying more land, building, and expanding. This whole process makes a greater carbon footprint than I will make in my entire life. The way they try and dress this process up to be compatible with sustainability is laughable. TESCO for example, state that their aim is that by 2020, the average carbon footprint of their new stores will be 50 per cent smaller than in 2006. How noble – only exploiting the world’s resources half as much? Real philanthropy right here people.
This is the fundamental contradiction of retailers advocating sustainability – expanding their businesses increases their carbon footprint. Is that enough of a reason for them to stop expanding? Of course not.
And yet, we’re the ones who needs to change our behaviour??