One of the reasons mainstream consumers do not go weak at the knees for sustainable consumption is the perception of an elephant-sized contradiction at its heart. To most people, consumption means buying more stuff; buying more stuff means making more things; and making more things means unsustainable consumption.
This is not about an inability to grasp the idea: you can explain proven, high-impact sustainable consumption to people on the street and they will understand the benefits put before them. This is about instinct – a feeling that sustainable consumption is just not possible. It's an oxymoron. It's a big marketing fib.
It appears that businesses can do little to shift this current intransigence, with consumer mistrust of corporate sustainability claims the norm. Little wonder, then, that sustainability struggles to move beyond a niche of conscientious consumers and committed companies.
The situation is made more complex by the digital explosion of user-generated content and many-to-many communications. We've all heard how Twitter, Facebook and the like can sink a product range, skew a brand image or defile a corporation in a matter of minutes. It can take just one disreputable supplier, one perceived piece of hypocrisy, or one unintended consequence, and millions of dollars worth of marketing spend goes up in the air. Consumers feed on this background noise when framing opinions about the green and ethical claims made by large companies.
So it is perhaps no wonder that marketing professionals and communications experts bemoan the consumers' lack of enduring interest in sustainable consumption. Perhaps this is simply a behavioural nudge too far. Or, perhaps, the catalyst for change lies elsewhere.
Consumers are increasingly turning to each other for trusted information on a whole range of issues. This, however, is happening outside the influence of corporate communications. It is happening between individuals and the people they trust: friends, family, other users, and consumer organisations. This is creating a heady mixture of influencing agents that range from anecdotal evidence to personal experiences to third-party assurance; and it appears corporations have little direct say in the matter.
Tripadvisor, Disqus and Reevoo are all offering consumers the opportunity to share opinion and weigh up the trustworthiness of corporate claims. As Consumer Focus (now Consumer Futures) indicated in its excellent report, In my honest opinion: Consumers and the power of online feedback, 88% of UK consumers consult user reviews before making a purchase.
Of course, such a shift in consumer decision-making is not confined to perceptions of sustainability claims – but sustainable consumption arguably has the biggest hill to climb. The tightening of disposable incomes, the mainstream media's general scepticism about climate change and the mistrust of corporate claims all contribute to an unfavourable environment for changing behaviour in this area.
Of all these challenges, the issue of trust is the one most open to change in the short term. Companies can alter the public perception about green claims, but it takes coherent, consistent efforts across the business and the supply chain. Third-party certification schemes, and rigorous CSR and sustainability standards such as ISO 26000 or the ISEAL codes are also important foundations that can begin to change the background noise and chip away at the scepticism.
Corporations should stop worrying about the message and focus on mainstreaming sustainability through their business and suppliers, while being totally open about the progress, successes and failures. In a world that increasingly demands instant communications, open data and total transparency, this is the closest one can get to guaranteeing a positive foundation for convincing consumers that sustainable consumption is not one big fib.
What a wonderfully simple irony: companies need to be geared up and running sustainable businesses before they can expect consumers to believe that they are sustainable. Which is exactly as it should be.
This blog first appeared on The Guardian website.