Can You Bottle Authenticity? Sustainability and FMCG/CPG Brands

By Rebeca Arbona

Early attempts at marketing goods in ways that are gentler for the planet were often clumsy attempts to change consumers’ behaviors, such as exhorting them to recycle the package a product came in, or having them buy a larger bottle in order to make a smaller environmental impact. When environmental awareness was emerging, companies would mostly conduct “business as usual” and expect consumers to bear the greater portion of responsibility for a habit change.

Although these approaches still exist, and there is certainly nothing wrong with encouraging lifestyle changes, the situation has now evolved so that almost all major brands understand they must make broader and more far-reaching changes themselves to reduce their impact on the environment and the world. Environmental efforts used to be a differentiator for a distinct sub-segment of consumers that were more passionate about the issue. But now they’ve become table stakes for most brands in most sectors. That’s not because they don’t matter. Rather, it’s because of how much they do.

While the perception of being green may no longer allow a brand’s product to stand out on the shelf, it’s more important than ever to be a brand that understands and authentically embraces the values that matter most to people. Instead of expecting consumers to bear the brunt of change, the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies that are doing this best have learned that they need to “be the change you want to see in the world,” to quote a bumper sticker often falsely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

Eco-jargon abounds

The terms used to describe environmental efforts have varied and changed over the years, just as the meaning behind these terms has been undergoing evolution. In the early days, it was enough to produce products that were recyclable or made from recycled materials. Later, brands began calling out less-defined benefits like being “eco-friendly,” “environmentally conscious,” and “sustainable.”

Today, all those terms remain in use, as well as the broader, more commonly used term, “green.” Meanwhile, what consumers expect of brands’ eco-efforts has become both less precise, and more demanding, at the same time. To further complicate matters, the proliferation of products exhibiting an eco-sensibility occurred in parallel with the emergence of corporate social responsibility reporting; and now the two are often conflated on brands’ websites and in consumers’ minds as a vaguely defined form of corporate morality.

I’ll know it when I see it

It’s no wonder, then, that consumers are confused. They’re not sure exactly what it is that makes a brand green, and they’re not even sure that it’s true when they hear such a claim, but they know it’s a good thing for a brand to exhibit, and they feel when it rings true. For consumers, the definition of a green brand has gone from a promise to “do no harm” to a mandate to proactively “do good.” At the same time, many consumers remain deeply skeptical of brands’ motives and authenticity, sometimes fearing that they’re being duped into believing false claims.

The term “greenwashing” has emerged to describe insincere efforts that seemingly stem from a corporate concern about the environment but are actually motivated by a desire for profit. As if that weren’t challenging enough for companies, being a green brand isn’t something a manufacturer can call out on a product package lightly. It’s in these murky (dare I say polluted) waters that brands must find a way to swim forward.

What this looks like in practice is a shift from sustainability as something companies DO to something they ARE. It’s marked by an evolution from more narrowly focused product-level efforts, such as using recycled materials in a package, to overall process improvements that also take into account the environmental impact of every step of manufacturing, transporting, and post-use disposal. Procurement initiatives, such as Nescafé’s efforts to source coffee beans more sustainably, for instance, are just as important today as having a package made with post-consumer recycled materials.

The key differentiator between successful FMCG brand environmental efforts, big and small, and those that fail is the one that’s always been a driver of consumer brand choice: consumers want to associate with brands they admire. As pointed out in Interbrand’s 2012 Best Global Green Brands report, “brands will only be perceived as credible, authentic, and truly committed to sustainability if their efforts…are fully integrated into their brand’s DNA.”

This is seen most dramatically in the credo of Extended Producer Responsibility, which proposes that those who produce an item are also responsible for recycling that same item, either directly or by funding recycling systems. While this philosophy is at the more extreme leading edge, the idea is beginning to take hold for high-environmental-impact products like paint, batteries, and electronics. In this same cradle-to-grave vein, on Earth Day 2013 the Coca-Cola Foundation quietly made grants in cities across the US to fund recycling efforts, which not only help communities, but also help companies like Coca-Cola reduce their impact. As Unilever CEO Paul Polman recently stated, “Never before has it been so important for business to step up its leadership to address both the causes and the impacts of climate change.” It’s this kind of leadership that drives good business practices.

It’s interesting to think about what it means for a company or a brand to be green in light of the changes that have and haven’t transpired in our culture. At the same time that many consumers have shown they aren’t particularly willing to pay more or be inconvenienced for environmentally sustainable products, we’ve seen the increasing acceptance of home recycling, reusable shopping bags, and hybrid vehicles. Some of this seeming contradiction is explained by the difference between those consumers who are most fervently committed to environmental causes and the more complacent general public. But more is going on here. We are in the midst of a cultural change. What were once considered fringe behaviors continue to spread deeper and deeper into the mainstream and what we’re seeing today is that people really do care about these issues, despite the inconsistent success of environmentally focused products and brands.

Doing well by doing good

In many cases, the difference between success and failure stems from how sincere people perceive a brand’s efforts to be, and how much inconvenience is expected of them. Most consumers see the impact of their own, individual actions as too small to matter, whereas it’s very easy for them to envision that a company’s efforts are quite large and impactful. They expect the brands that bring them their preferred goods to be the ones to start solving environmental issues, and they hope that companies are addressing them because it’s right, not just because it’s popular. Something that Mahatma Gandhi really did say illustrates this principle perfectly: “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience.”