Environmental responsibility vs. social responsibility: Which one’s the winning approach?


How does your company define “sustainability”?

Is it a synonym for “environmental responsibility”? Is it about health and wellness? Maybe it’s about quality, longevity or sourcing strategies. Or maybe it means, “We treat people and the communities we serve with respect.”

Any of the above could work, and we’ve been on our soapbox for the last few years proclaiming that NOW is the time for you to define what it means for your organization in the context of what your brand stands for, the market cares about and your internal culture will embrace. Because right now, when you ask Americans to define sustainability, the number one answer is the equivalent of, “Um, could you repeat the question?” (They don’t know.) So YOU get to define it in a way that makes sense for your organization before Americans have all agreed to what it means.

But if you have to choose between environmental responsibility or social responsibility as your definition – if you can’t back both horses – your choice, from a sheer sales and marketing perspective, should be driven by the market.

On the consumer side, our 2013 Eco Pulse study revealed that environmental responsibility is slightly more appealing. Twelve percent of Americans say a company’s environmental reputation VERY MUCH impacts their decision whether or not to buy its products. But only 8% list “maintain high corporate social responsibility standards” as one of the three most important things companies should be doing that would positively impact purchase decisions.

In the business-to-business world, our just released B2B Pulse study shows it’s 180 degrees different. Only 5% of business decision makers say a strong corporate environmental track record is VERY important in making product selection decisions, while 9% say a strong social responsibility track record is very important.

We defined “social responsibility,” by the way, as “fair wages, good working conditions, community involvement, etc.,” and I’m simply giving you the top-box, top-line results. It’s a complex issue, and your best definition (from an audience care-about standpoint) will differ based on your category and who the decision maker is. On the consumer side, if your likely buyer is an Active, she will care about a specific set of defining features of sustainability that differ from what a Skeptic will care about. On the B2B side, a purchasing manager will prioritize different sustainability/responsibility features than a CIO.

The point is this: The window is still open for you to define your commitment to sustainability in a way that truly fits with the DNA of your brand and your market. But do the homework to understand what your market cares about or you risk missing the mark and launching a sustainability/responsibility communications strategy that doesn’t resonate with your core audience.



Suzanne Shelton

About Suzanne Shelton

Suzanne Shelton is President and CEO of Shelton Group, the nation's leading marketing agency focused exclusively on energy and the environment. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of the industry, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights in her writing, research, and client work. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz.com, and she speaks at over 20 conferences a year, including ACEEE, AESP, Greenbiz Forum, and Sustainable Brands.

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  1. Myself and my company have been practicing or utilizing ” Sustainablity” in our projects for years. Even before it became the right thing to do. I have been criticized for what was called, ” being a hoarder ” , but I knew or felt it was the right thing to do. My company now advertises ” Green Demo ” as a form of demolition with as little as possible going to a landfill. It is more labor intensive but we usually are able to regroup our money on the back end somewhere. The amount of QUALITY materials that are sent to the landfill in the name of fast, efficient labor practices is unbelievable. We are trying to have governing bodies require this type of demo in any project with local, state or federal funds. This alone has met many recycling quota percentages. Also, don’t do it because it’s the in thing to do. Do it because you mean it. OWEN YOUR ACTION AND COMMENTS PEOPLE !!

  2. Great post! Been reading a lot about business environmental responsibility. Thanks for the info here!

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