Image credit: The Change
Transparency Means Openness About Everything - Warts and All
The goal of sustainability is clear. The means are debatable. This creates challenges for marketers (my company, The Change, works on brand creation and design for green businesses and nonprofits). Traditionally, brand value is created with confidence, not uncertainty. But the sincere pursuit of sustainability requires reviews and readjustments - all while maintaining forward movement. If you're a business in sincere pursuit of sustainability, you're going to have to make frequent course corrections. We've experienced this ourselves - and it's up to us to share our decision making process, even when the reality is not what we might hope it was. Typically, businesses do course-altering behind-the-scenes. In regards to corporate responsibility and sustainability, it makes sense to be transparent about changing course. Two reasons why:
1. Unlike market share, sustainability isn't a zero sum game. It's in everyone's interest to share information.
2. Transparency enables you extract market value from your decision-making processes.
Local vs Organic?
For example, if you're a denim company that's been sourcing organic cotton from India, yet you've just found a source of cotton from a farmer cooperative closer in Costa Rica. It's not organic, but you've been there and you know spraying is minimal and you know you can make much more of a community impact by switching your cotton source. Yet it's not a crystal clear step forward. You're losing the clarity of organic certification for something that furthers your mission, yet is more difficult to talk about. By being open about your decision-making to your customers, you affirm the sincerity of your mission and your values (nothing demonstrates values better than how they play out in making a decision -- that's what values are all about).
To a large extent, this openness inoculates you against criticism from pro-organic groups -- because you've publicly laundered those concerns (thus negating the power of any damning revelations). And the public discussion gives you content for deepening your relationship with consumers. Think about it, honest discussion is the foundation of any genuine relationship.
Here's a real example.
Biodegradable Bags - Sustainability Accomplished?
We worked with Larry's Beans to develop their biodegradable bags. The bags continue to generate lots of great media attention. And it has put us in situations to learn more about biodegradability. We (meaning my company, The Change, working in concert with Larry’s Beans) have talked to college professors, researchers, and other experts (including those who have disputed whether or not the bags will in fact biodegrade in landfills) -- and the upshot is that we're re-thinking the issue.
We're concerned with contributing to our culture's throwaway tendencies. We're considering the idea that maybe the carbon sequestered in the plastic is best kept right where it is. And we're exploring various types of recycled/recyclable packaging to see if we can obtain the airtight quality required for keeping coffee fresh, while keeping in mind issues such as package weight, recyclability versus downcycling, etc. (And we've been eying the upcycling efforts of Terracycle with increasing envy and awe.)
Two years ago, when Larry's began distributing cornstarch biodegradable cups, we had an extended internal debate about the biodegradability benefits vs. the downside of GMO corn (and we learned a thing or too about fossil fuels and corn farming in the process too). In the end, we went with the cornstarch cups because we decided anything that makes someone think about new materials is better than the status quo of not thinking at all. But the decision was neither easy nor indisputable. During this time, I realized how happy I was to be involved in such a sincere discussion about what's best for the planet. If our customers could see this, I thought, they would really get what Larry's Beans is all about.
In terms of branding, what makes Larry's Beans and other such companies worthy of loyalty and support is not that they're always right, it's that they're committed and sincere. It's about authenticity, not perfection. And authenticity isn't conveyed by being right. It's conveyed by being true to your ideals. The best way to make that point is not just by making a big deal about your decisions, but by being candid about the discussions behind them.
Looking Forward to Truly Sustainable Packaging
So we're making Larry's Beans' biodegradability discussion public. Right here. I just did. But the next part of transparency is dialogue. Keeping in mind, all the issues, from weight, to recycling vs. down-cycling to customers being able to see the product, what do you think? What can Larry's Beans next package be? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below - we'd love to hear from you.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change - a brand creation and design agency that works with sustainable businesses and non-profits.
More from Jerry Stifelman on Green Branding and Marketing
Green Branding for Major Corporations
Green Branding: Free Your Inner Activist, Business Will Follow
Green Branding: Why Originality Matters
Branding for Non-profits: Why It's Important
Rebirth of the Producer
Greenhushing Doesn't Help Anyone: Why Green Business Should Speak Up
Reality vs. Perception: On Being Born With a Green Spoon in Your Mouth
The Virtue of Humility: Why Coke's Ethical Store Failed
Green Branding and Marketing: Who's Out in Front?
Be More Than Green
Authenticity: Get it Free With Your Commitment to Preserve the Earth
Just Because It Saves the World, That Doesn't Make it Popular
The Planet Wants You to Market Really Well