The Importance of Real Sustainability in Business

As global climate change continues to advance at rapid levels, corporate sustainability has become more important than ever. In order to attract a wider consumer base that’s concerned about the environment, myriad businesses are introducing sustainable packaging, policies, and product lines.

Sustainability in Business. Credit: Charles Etoroma, Unsplash

Data indicates that sustainability directly impacts a company’s bottom line: In fact, Business News Daily reports that more than 80% of consumers feel that designing environmentally conscious products is “extremely important.” However, at the consumer level, the environmental impact of a product still lags in importance behind quality, price, and health and safety concerns.

Yet in our modern age of technological advancement and streamlined production methods, it’s quite possible for businesses of all sizes to effectively merge quality and affordability with sustainable practices. At the consumer level, sorting through corporate sustainability efforts can be difficult, especially in the wake of widespread claims of sustainable business practices. In many industries, including food service and consumer marketing, a tactic known as “greenwashing” is common. Put simply, greenwashing refers to the misrepresentation of a product or company as environmentally friendly or healthful when that may not be the case.

Thus, how can consumers determine which products and companies are actually eco-friendly, and which ones are simply greenwashing? And how can businesses effectively market their sustainable products and environmental efforts in order to better attract eco-conscious consumers?

Organic, Green, and Natural: What’s in a Name?

Within the business world, avoiding greenwashing starts with a basic understanding of the terms associated with environmentalism and sustainability. Of primary importance is the definition of organic, a word used in the food industry to refer to products and ingredients grown without pesticides or chemicals. Further, products labeled as organic must not contain additives or genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.

While the “organic” label requires some sort of third party verification, the rules regarding other words connected to sustainability, such as “green” and “natural,” are less strict, or even nonexistent. Consumers should always read ingredient lists and be mindful of corporate slogans that imply sustainability, such as “from nature” or “good for the planet.” In many cases, these types of words and phrases can be misleading and indicative that a company is greenwashing.

The organic food movement kicked off in 1990 with the passage of the USDA’s Organic Food Production Act. But it took a while for organic products to saturate the market, and they were typically found only in specialty food stores or purchased directly from farmers. And where in the past, organic products weren’t so ubiquitous and allowed a company to stand out from the competition, that’s no longer the case. Today, companies that want to effectively promote an organic product lines should consider utilizing digital channels such as influencer and social media marketing.

Sustainability and Marketing Best Practices

Marketing is of paramount importance to every business, and potential customers are increasingly looking for green businesses to support. Thus, promoting sustainability efforts and adopting green business policies are essential to attracting a wider consumer base. In these efforts, nonprofits may have a leg up over for-profit companies, even those that are wholly committed to sustainability.

That’s because nonprofits, by definition, help foster change and improve human health at every level. There are approximately 1.3 million charitable organizations in the U.S. that focus on issues ranging from homelessness and public health to education and environmental stewardship. Green businesses should consider partnering with one or several nonprofits, or hosting an awareness campaign, to make a greater impact and boost their bottom line.

And partnering with a nonprofit can be a win-win all around — in order to carry out their mission successfully, a nonprofit requires awareness and support, both of which can lead to increased funding. For instance, energy giant General Electric gives back to communities through its GE Foundation, which supports endeavors such as STEM education, sustainability, and improved public health. In 2018, the GE Foundation and its family of partners gave $129 million to various charitable organizations, including AmeriCares, a nonprofit that provides emergency medical care and wellness checks to underserved populations.

Greenwashing Versus Green Businesses

So what does it mean to be a “green business”? When a business operates with minimal impact to the natural environment, it is effectively cultivating business sustainability. Maryville University in St. Louis defines a green business as one that, “functions in the best interests of the local and global environment.” Green businesses, therefore, help support their community and economy, and consider their environmental impact as well as profits when making business decisions.

The good news is that sustainable, green business practices are not solely restricted to smaller, locally based companies and nonprofits. For example, several corporate leaders in renewable energy consumption are global powerhouses when it comes to revenue. The National Hockey League (NHL), for example, is the nation’s 17th largest user of green power, and technology company Intel first met its goal to use 100% of its energy from renewable sources in 2015. Interestingly, consumers may be unaware of the sustainability efforts of the NHL, Intel, and similar corporations that have been quietly running on renewable energy credits for years.

We’ve come a long way from the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. In recent years, sustainability has become a social justice issue; it’s no longer merely a nicety for good PR, and green labels are not enough to foster a loyal, eco-conscious customer base. In increasing numbers, consumers in all age brackets and income levels are using their spending power to support global sustainability and public health. Rather than resorting to greenwashing or similar deceptive tactics, today’s businesses need to prioritize sustainability in order to stay ahead of the competition.