Engaging with the disengaged on sustainability

By David Bicknell

Sustainability has made it onto the business agenda of most large organisations. Admittedly some organisations treat the sustainability reality more seriously than others:  some will use it as a competitive enabler, or to beef up their brand identity. Others will use it as a means of cutting costs: i.e. ‘talk green, mean lean.’

Whatever their commitment, there are precious few organisations that have not had some discussions about either sustainability in their supply chain, or their corporate social responsibility, or  how they can engage with their customers on green issues.

Sometimes, however, ‘engaging’ is easier said than done. Preaching to the converted is fine – but it’s the unconverted that need to be enlightened. This was the subject of a recent event in Reading hosted by Clarkslegal and organised and moderated by C8 Consulting.

The attendees included Connect Reading, Kyocera Mita, Global Cool Foundation, Locus, Reading Borough Council, Ennismore Partners, The FD Centre, Integral, Jacobs Engineering, Reading Football Club, Graft Thames Valley, CBS Business Interiors, Thames Water and the Campaign4Change.

One of the key topics discussed was the need to find a way of making sustainability desirable. As Global Cool put it, ‘Climate change doesn’t have an awareness problem. But it does have a marketing problem. Almost everyone is aware of the climate issue, but only a minority are changing their lifestyles to reduce carbon. Remember the old adage, “If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something else.”

Companies sell products which are fabulously profitable. But they do it not by talking about profitability, but by showing how cool and desirable the product is. The same must go for sustainability. That means not talking simply about sustainability – because most people aren’t interested – but showing how lifestyles and products which happen to be sustainable, are in the ‘customer’s’ interests.

Another issue discussed is the challenge of getting SMEs engaged on sustainability. The problem is that in today’s economic climate, most SMEs are running around just trying to keep their businesses afloat. Sustainability – or ‘green’ – just doesn’t register. Even the various loans, grants etc available pass them by, because in many cases, they have to spend to get matching grants ‘to save’.

The idea was mooted that maybe SMEs might have more clout – and more interest in what they could save off their energy bills – if they had a bigger voice. One large voice composed of a million smaller voices carries more clout than one single voice. It’s the difference between a choir and a chorister. Perhaps this model for SMEs demands more exploration. For the moment, however, the sustainability – and potentially lower cost – message is being drowned out by the ‘bigger drumbeat’ for the SME –  of customer retention and acquisition – and survival.

More thoughts on this subject to follow.

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