Retailers Listen Up: Your Sustainability Campaigns and Plans are Rubbish and Insincere.

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

Unilever urging consumers to buy (their) sustainable products.

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.

Redirected Efforts

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??

It’s going to take a lot of PR to spin our way out of this one.

  1. I don’t understand how Sainsbury’s can make it seem like they care as much as they do. Their whole business is based on demand and supply. If the customer demands a exotic fruit from the remote regions of Thailand (and they are willing to pay the price for it), it is a responsibility of Sainsbury’s to its shareholders to supply this product and then profit from it.

  2. This is a really nice blog – thanks for posting.

    One of the reasons that I like your blog so much is that it’s a great insight into one of my favourite topics – greenwashing!

    If you don’t already know (but I’m sure you do) greenwashing is “the practice of promoting environmentally friendly programmes to deflect attention away from an organisation’s environmentally unfriendly or less savoury activities” (, 2012).

    Like you, I am a bit of a cynic and I feel that there is an awful lot of greenwashing going on with the simple intention of increasing companies’ profits not saving the world.

    A great demonstration of this is the rise of ‘green’ advertising. In 2003, £448,000 worth of advertising included the words; recycle emissions, environmental, carbon or CO2. By 2006 this had increased to £17million (Gillespie, 2008). That’s a huge increase right?

    What’s worse is that there was no 40% reduction in actual carbon emissions to run alongside the 40% increase in the use of these words. To me this is proof that companies are simply using words that make them sound good to just make a fast buck.

    One of my favourite examples I can give you of this is an aviation company who boasted about the 100% recyclability of their new fighter jet.

    If that’s not missing the point, I don’t know what is!

  3. amp101 said:

    Another important issue with these supermarkets is trust.

    We know supermarkets are out to make a profit. That is the very nature on which multinational chains are built upon. So when a company tries to advertise to us via any other means but price saving, we are instantly curious and suspicious about their hidden intentions.

    Also a general bit of info just for intrest. A lot of individuals are big on reducing their carbon footprint. Do you know the current contingency plan should the earth become to hot? The plan is to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

    Yeah thats right, Carbon dioxide in the stratosphere (Above the atmosphere) is the only thing proven to deflect heat from the sun. If you remember the 9/11 tragedy flights were cancelled above new york, and on that day the temperature rose. When flights went on again it came back down. The reason is because the airplanes release fumes, making clouds of co2 that deflects heat from the sun!

    Crazy huh?

  4. Interesting post.

    I like the way that you focus the topic, it is very realistic, although I would say that I disagree in some aspects.

    The incinerating title of your post has its part of truth, although I think it is quite radical. A lot of companies are taking in advantage the “trend” of sustainability to base their marketing campaigns while they don’t follow policies for sustainability to carry out their operations and objectives. At the end the companies’ goal is to extend its profit. However there are many companies that -at least affirm- are engaged to a sustainable philosophy and develop their objectives on something else than making profit. Here there are some examples, although I’m quite skeptical about the criteria followed to make this ranking:

    Anyway, although a company doesn’t really act as sustainable as in their marketing campaigns, I think that is the first step of a big change and it might be better than nothing.

    We, as individual consumers, don’t feel the necessity to change our behaviour because, as you said, we don’t think we are the problem. We tend to put the blame on the organisational consumers -companies and organisations- which contribute in a larger scale to environmental problems: that is fair enough. But, in my opinion, we should stop thinking about whether is me, or you or the companies who causes the problem, when is everybody’s problem. That sounds very good and might be not so difficult to think, but it might be much harder to change it as a behaviour, and that’s what I think is the real problem.


  5. psp046 said:

    I personally feel supermarkets are doing their fair share of being sustainable and are promoting awareness. When I go Tesco I can see in big print the Carbon free advertisements and bins which you can re-cycle products in a easy manner. Supermarkets are encourging individuals to be more eco-friendly and aim to achieve some results in a time frame set. The actions which they take to recycle and make the consumer aware is good and hopefully will make the consumer realise the importance of being part of a sustainable future.
    I find this blog of really interesting and the scope of it imense, the consumer however when shopping does not really worry about the fact how sustainable a product is but more so wants a product which is value for money. I feel the more supermarkets can do to promote this concept and the importance of this within their supermarkets this will make the consumer more aware of its benefits and subsequently contribute more cautiously to the same cause, with the feeling that we are a contributing factor as consumers.

Speak your brains

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: