The number of companies that actually make their own products is dwindling. Manufacturing, especially as it pertains to consumer products like shoes and textiles, has been reduced to an exercise in outsourcing. It's not uncommon for competing products to actually be made in the same factories. The result is that brands have become disconnected from the processes that create the products they represent.
How a product is made should be a critical point of difference from its competition. But it no longer is -- unless you're a green, ethically-conscious company.
Six months ago, my colleagues and I were invited to participate in the Walmart CEO Sustainability Summit. In attendance were CEO's from companies whose products are sold (or under consideration for sale) by Walmart. Almost every attendee we met referred their company as a "supplier." Hardly anyone used the term "manufacturer". This is because they don't manufacture anything. Instead, like most name-brand suppliers of consumer goods, they engage in short-term contracts with third-party production facilities, the vast majority of which are in the developing world, often operating to significantly lower environmental and labor standards. Contracts tend to be short-term because companies want to maintain the flexibility to switch to an even lower-cost manufacturer – and as a result, suppliers have little leverage to impose, monitor or enforce environmental or labor standards on their contract facilities. I suspect that this is part of the reason why WalMart's sustainability efforts have so far focused more on how a product is packaged and transported, rather than on how it is manufactured. This is not to say such efforts are not welcome or genuine, but that Wal-Mart has chosen for now to concentrate its efforts on in ways that neither challenge nor modify this contract-manufacture business model.
However, if you are a genuinely mission-driven green and ethical company, you can't turn a blind eye to how your products are made. Instead, you need to actually manufacture your own goods, or at least exert far greater controls over your contract sources. This makes you different from conventional companies — and being different is at the core of effective branding -- provided, that is, you effectively communicate these points of differences to your customers.
Yet I'm continually surprised how few companies do this. Usually, issues of manufacturing are either un-addressed entirely, relegated to the farthest navigational reaches of a corporate web site or buried in the arcane language of a CSR Report (don't get me started on the readability of CSR reports!). In all fairness, it's challenging to translate this kind of information into accessible language and it is easy to shrug off the exercise entirely by dismissing it as an issue that no one's interested in. But the fact is that people -- people in the mainstream, not just treehuggers -- care about the way their product is made, as long as the information is expressed to appeal to their existing values. Recent media attention to controversies in Chinese toy making, fish-farming and pharmaceuticals are only increasing people's interest in how their goods are made.
And the differentiation is not just about product quality. Abstract, disconnected supply chains present a nightmare for anyone trying to figure out the true environmental impact of their products. The more you control the process, the more you can improve the process. So take time to view your production process in its entirety - even hire someone to undertake a full life cycle analysis - and then use that knowledge to both improve your environmental performance, and communicate your responsible attitude to consumers. The fewer times you have to say "I don't know" in response to a customer question, the closer you'll be to sustainability.
Here are some suggestions for communicating these issues.
1. Distill your best practices into a series of simple points accompanied by deeper explications. This way, the typical customer can see at a glance the things that set you apart -- and activist consumers and members of the media can read the details. As well, simply seeing that you've taken the time to express the details lets someone know that you're serious about transparency.
2. Link your practices to your company mission. Too often, mission statements are exercises in irrelevant communication. If you're one of the rare companies that practices what you preach, let people know it.
3. "Roadblock" key points. By this, I mean don't just express them in one place. Communicate them prominently on your web site, on consumer packaging, on shipping materials (i.e., corrugated cases), in the boilerplate of all press releases, as the focus of a press backgrounder etc. The idea is to ensure that people are exposed to the information -- and, ideally, to give people multiple exposures to the information. The more someone encounters this communication, the more it becomes a part of your brand.
4. Keep the media honest. It's difficult for reporters to research manufacturing conditions at source. If you read something that you suspect doesn't tell the whole truth, contact the writer with your information -- be prepared to back up your claims with documents, photography, video and the contact information for others who can expand on your information.
5. Be transparent. If you're green and good, information is power. If your competitors are making compromises to keep their costs down, for them, information is dangerous. Use this disparity to your advantage.
6. Make the most of non-profit resources. If you have interests in common with environmental and human rights groups, you should work with them. Co-sponsorship, campaigning together, and becoming more of an "activist brand" can both increase your visibility and credibility among customers -- and enable you to expand and enforce best practices among competitors. When your conventional competition tries to put a positive spin about their own practices, your non-profit partners can help expose manipulations of the truth. That way you become an agent for change, not just within your own operations, but across your whole market sector – setting you apart as a leader while simultaneously raising the bar for those who come behind. And that's when the real change happens…
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic. To view his previous posts on the ins and outs of green branding and marketing, follow this link.