Making room for sustainability in the home improvement industry

by Sep 26, 2019

Shelton Stat of the Week

83% of Americans think we have a moral duty to leave the earth in as good or better shape than we found it. Eco Pulse 2018.

Sustainability in the home improvement industry

I sat in on several sessions at an excellent conference yesterday, a conference focused on trends and insights in home improvement. I heard a lot (and learned a lot) about pressing issues:

  • The labor shortage crippling the building industry (it’s taking three times longer to build houses in some markets due to waits for subcontractors…which means fewer houses can get built, which impacts sales of building products).
  • The ongoing trade war driving prices up.
  • The “Instagram Effect” has pushed Keeping up with the Joneses into hyperdrive, which is sometimes good for building product sales – people are redecorating more often – but can be paralyzing for people, creating fear of making a wrong, unstylish decision.
  • Mobile shopping is actually increasing retail conversions, as long as the online presence “creates convenience” for the shopper. In other words, we’re all going online to research styles and “how to’s” and then going to retail to see things in person and make final decisions.
  • Speaking of convenience, it has eroded price sensitivity – if you can make something more convenient, a consumer is less likely to question the price, which opens up even more runway for the instant financing that’s already happening in this industry. One presenter said, “We do consumer research in 140 countries and one thing people in all countries say is, ‘I don’t have enough time, and I don’t get enough sleep.’”
  • Though Millennials and How To Woo Them is THE hot topic, Boomers are a hot topic as well. They’re aging in place and spending money on home improvement in a way that their predecessors didn’t. (Of course, Boomers have always behaved differently than the generations before them!)

What I didn’t hear about at all in the six sessions I sat in was the environment as an issue for this industry. Nobody used the words, “sustainability, “climate change” or “climate crisis” to describe trends impacting home improvement product makers and retailers. 

I was rather gobsmacked by this, because of all the trends Shelton Group tracks that I write about and speak about constantly. Take your pick:

  • 82% of Millennials are anxious about the impacts of climate change in their children’s lifetime.
  • 86% of all Americans expect companies to stand for something other than just making money.
  • 41% of us want to be seen as someone who buys green products.
  • 25% of us can name a brand we’ve purchased – or not purchased – because of the environmental record of the manufacturer.

Sustainability is a real expectation of corporate America and it’s a driver of brand preference and purchase decisions. So why isn’t the home improvement industry talking about it? It’s climate week, and the climate crisis is all over the news. And the conference I attended happened in a major city four days after an estimated 4 million people – including MANY of the ever-desired consumer targets, Millennials and Gen Z – took to the streets in major cities around the world to demand that governments and corporations DO something to stop the climate crisis. It seems like people in the home improvement industry should be talking about it.

Of course, that’s part of why I went (I presented yesterday), but I’m pointing all of this out, because this is indeed the disconnect between what people want and what governments and businesses are doing. Children are demanding change because they’re terrified of the apocalyptic future we’re all creating with business as usual. And politicians and business leaders are slow-walking change because it’s hard. And expensive. Very expensive. Of course, trying to deal with the impacts of climate change later are even more expensive. But it’s human nature to put off hard, expensive decisions.

I’m in the business of creating and telling corporate sustainability stories. And I’m certain Millennials and Centennials – the people corporate America wants to buy their products and come work for them – don’t care about stories of incremental improvement. They don’t want to hear about how a company reduced its GHG emissions 25 or 30 percent. They want to hear about bold, courageous action. I completely understand that some companies very much want to do this, and the costs involved will make their products more expensive at shelf and put them at a disadvantage (though, based on what I heard yesterday, if your product is more convenient AND more environmentally friendly, the cost increase might not matter).

In the absence of actual policy that creates a fair playing field, manufacturers, retailers, trade organizations and NGO’s need to find a way to come together and decide collectively on the bold actions they’ll all take, essentially creating a fair playing field for everyone. Retailers have already been doing this to some degree; it’s simply time to step up the game. The companies, retailers and industries that do this will own the story. And build the deepest kind of brand loyalty with a grateful generation.

It seems to me the home improvement industry is a great place to start.

Americans Say ‘Enough’ to Plastic

American consumers care about the problem of plastic waste more than ever – even more than climate change, our 2019 research reveals. We polled 1,000 Americans on environmental issues, and “plastics in the ocean” ranked as their top concern. Now is the time for brands to tell their plastic waste story, and to step up and give consumers what they want: alternatives to single-use plastic – perhaps some circular options.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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