The Future of Business Sustainability: Pushing Sustainable Consumption Toward the Mainstream
How can the “sustainable consumption” movement mainstream itself by becoming more accessible and thus inclusive and diverse? This year, I had the privilege of co-organizing the Erb Institute’s first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion panel, alongside fellow Erb student Kathy Tian. Knowing that retailers and marketers alike still see sustainable consumers as a niche consumer segment, our panelists proposed two solutions to mainstream sustainable consumption.
Gloria Hwang, CEO and founder of Thousand Helmet, a bike helmet company rooted in a socially driven mission of reducing bike-related fatalities, suggested that sustainability can be mainstreamed through marketing. Before Thousand, Hwang worked at the “One for One” shoe-giving pioneer, TOMS Shoes, as a social innovations manager. At TOMS, Hwang witnessed the power of effective brand-building and storytelling in not only driving the company’s One for One mission forward but also driving sales and revenue. Says Hwang, “If you are able to communicate an emotional point of difference in your product to your consumers, and if you are able to build a brand that represents values that consumers truly believe in, then consumer demand will follow—more consumers will be willing to buy and pay for your products.”
Hwang says, “It is limiting to say that the sustainable shopper is a niche and higher-income segment. If you demonstrate and lead with the business case, people will consume more of it, and industries will change. If you demonstrate that consumers are willing to pay more for or pick a lateral product based on sustainability attributes, the industry will change to follow suit.”
Building a brand rooted in values of sustainability is an opportunity for companies to capitalize on untapped consumer segments, and it can generate market demand for a firm’s products. Rather than companies viewing corporate social responsibility and sustainability initiatives as costs that sit under their supply chain or finance departments, firms can instead view them as sales and revenue-driving opportunities that sit under their marketing departments. Says Hwang, “At TOMS, sustainability and social responsibility sat within our ten-person marketing department. We knew that telling our stories and connecting people to our ‘One for One’ mission would create greater consumer demand for our products, and as a result, we invested heavily in brand and marketing.”