“Going green” is not a new trend. In today’s market, sustainability is table stakes.

Consumers can choose from a myriad of sustainable, competitively priced, quality products – which often viewed as more desirable. In this post-pandemic world, a growing consumer base, especially Gen Z, expect businesses to participate in the world even more actively and responsibly. In a recent Nielsen study, three-quarters of Gen Z consumers stated that sustainability is more important to them than brand names and 75% of Millennials are eco-conscious to the point of changing their buying habits to favor environmentally-friendly products.

For businesses, this means adopting policies and practices that benefit not only the environment, but society as well.

Brands can stand out from the sea of “green” by becoming leaders in social impact, whether that is sustainability, equity, or fair employment practices. But for their accountability practices to resonate with consumers, brands need to talk the talk and walk the walk. They must take meaningful action to back up their messaging, or else the perception of “greenwashing” or “virtue-signaling” can drive significant backlash from consumers. At the same time, companies who are making great strides in their purpose-driven work won’t benefit from consumer engagement if they don’t tell their story.

Help the world, and your bottom line

There are financial incentives to adopting sustainable and socially responsible practices. Studies show that sustainable practices:

  • lower the cost of capital,
  • result in better operational performance, and
  • drive positive stock price performance

Purpose-driven practices can also drive innovation. Redesigning products or services to meet environmental standards or social needs creates new business opportunities. In addition, greater corporate responsibility improves morale and loyalty among employees. According to a study cited in Harvard Business Review, average turnover rates at purpose-driven businesses may be reduced by 25%-50%.

A major positive outcome of adopting sustainable and socially responsible practices is the competitive edge that comes with it. Studies show that, when cost and quality are equal, consumers prefer companies with clear purpose and ethical values. According to a global survey by Accenture Strategy, 62% of consumers are more attracted to brands with high ethical values and who are authentic in their purpose-driven work. This attraction translates into sales. A study conducted by Porter Novelli revealed that, holding cost and quality equal, 71% of consumers would rather purchase from a purpose-drive company.

Engage with responsibility

Consumer preference for brands with sustainable and ethical practices may be driven by an increased sense of responsibility. Studies show that nearly two-thirds of consumers across six international markets believe they “have a responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society.”

But consumers feel that businesses have some responsibility, too. A 2020 ICF study found that 85% of consumers “want businesses to leverage their influence to raise awareness of sustainability issues.”A similar study from Accenture Strategy found this desire to be more generalized. 62% of consumers want businesses to “take a stand” on current issues, ranging from sustainability to transparency and fair employment practices. 

Consumers’ interest in businesses taking a stand is showing up in their actions, from commentary on social media to participating in boycotts. Younger generations are increasingly more invested, more likely to praise socially responsible and sustainable brands, and critique brands that are not. As time goes on, these interactions will accelerate.

Tell your story

Social activism is a key part of building an effective brand story. Brand storytelling is the thread that ties every touchpoint in the consumer experience together. Through storytelling, brand values become more deeply embedded in consumer minds, attitudes, and ultimately, their decisions. In other words, purpose-driven brand stories are attractive and engaging.

For example, TATA Consumer, one of India’s leading food & beverage companies, tells their story through a lens of environmental and social activism. Their mission is clear: “At TATA Consumer, we stand For Better products, nutrition, communities, and planet.” TATA approached BORN to strengthen their online presence across multiple markets. BORN worked with TATA to refresh their brand identity. To do this, they amplified brand storytelling throughout the newly developed site, re-aligning it with TATA’s “For Better” philosophy. TATA’s successes – from ranking as the number one food brand in India’s Brand Equity Survey, to becoming the first industrial township to meet international environmental standards – are highlighted on the homepage and in a primary section of the site. Their brand story integrates not only the importance of their mission, but the tangible impact TATA has on the world.

Be honest

Brand storytelling is more than the brand’s voice, heritage, and narrative. It must be a transparent conversation about your brand’s efforts to put their values into practice. Above all, consumers want companies to be honest. Studies show that corporate transparency may be even more important than corporate actions. Two-thirds of consumers think transparency is one of a brand’s most attractive qualities and strongly influences where they buy.

An authentic story helps consumers understand where your company has come from and where you’re going. This means being open about successes as well as failures. Consumers understand that implementing sustainable and socially responsible practices is difficult, complex, and an ongoing journey.  An honest conversation about that journey, with its ups and downs, is not only relatable, but also fosters a more authentic relationship with consumers.

Acknowledging the ways in which a company isn’t perfect builds trust. Studies show that, when a company leads with purpose, consumers are 72% more likely to forgive that company if it makes a misstep.

A strong, purpose-driven brand story can be found threaded throughout the digital presence of Reformation, an American clothing retailer. This retailer has a strong following of loyal consumers who believe in their mission statement: “We have big goals, like reducing more emissions than we make, making all our stuff from recyclable materials and trying to save the Earth while looking damn good doing it.” Reformation proves that the latest trends in fashion can go hand-in-hand with sustainability and green initiatives. They design stylish, vintage-inspired women’s clothes using only recycled, regenerative, or renewable materials in their clothes. Reformation also carefully tracks consumer data and feedback to produce only what they know they can sell in order to prevent “textile” waste. During their manufacturing they also take into account their energy consumption, water waste, greenhouse emissions and human and eco toxicity.

We’re all in this together

Sustainability and social responsibility cannot be accomplished in a vacuum. Built on honesty and trust, the relationship between brands and their consumers can help drive greater impact. Consumers are an important part of a brand’s ecosystem.

As consumers push brands to be more responsible and transparent, brands can work with their consumers to better understand how they can do so. Brands should be asking questions like:

  • What do our consumers care about?
  • What resonates with our consumers?
  • How can our brand work with consumers to innovate, educate, and make an impact?

Collaboration between stakeholders, employees and consumers can help companies discover shared values across the ecosystem and identify where the company can make a difference.

Combining research, service design, and brand storytelling, XDS design agencies BORN and  Mad*Pow work together to help organizations have meaningful conversations with their audiences, drive change within their organizations, and share their stories with the world.

Being sustainable, socially responsible, and authentic is an ongoing journey. Changing the world is hard. We’re here to support the work at every step of the way.