Rethinking sustainability goals and targets, Part II

by Feb 15, 2018

In last week’s post, I urged you all to go further than setting industry-standard, undifferentiating sustainability goals and targets for your organizations. I encouraged you to have at least one goal that was defining for your organization – something you can be known for, that enhances your brand story, that resonates with your buyers, that will make your company money and simultaneously solve a Big World Problem.

I gave examples of sustainability goals from three companies in the building products industry that all sound very similar and not particularly game-changing or inspirational to an end consumer.

And one of you asked a question back:

Suzanne, if you could rewrite one of these company’s sustainability goals, what would it look like? Would you put it in narrative form, for example?

I don’t want to “out” the companies whose sustainability targets I made an example of – and that would be the best way to tell you what I’d recommend for each one, given their specific product categories and what we know consumers care about/want companies to do related to the environment. So, let me keep it general and offer up two scenarios.

Scenario 1

They’re all makers of building products – products we all have in our homes. In a home renovation or retrofit situation, all of these products require the disposal of what once was there in order to add these products to the home. In other words, the very act of using these products requires old versions of the products to be “thrown away.”

The question, then, is where is “away?” Our Pulse data reveals that consumers expect companies to generate zero waste in their manufacturing processes. Our Pulse data also reveals that most Americans have an expectation of themselves, others and companies to recycle – recycling is something we’re all doing. It’s guilt assuagement. We want to buy stuff, even if it means replacing stuff that still works because the new version is prettier, sexier, faster, cooler, etc. If we know that old stuff is going to be taken to some magical place and remade into something else prettier, sexier, faster, cooler, etc., we get to breathe a sigh of relief and give ourselves full permission to buy what we wanted to buy anyway.

So, one pathway is for building products companies to come together and put in place a massive reclamation and recycling program. Doing this kind of thing is HARD. It requires buy-in from contractors, an easy way to send off the stuff to be recycled, humans to disassemble and separate different materials and then somebody to recycle it and resell it. This is why it will take multiple companies coming together to get it done.

But think of the brand lift! Just like beverage companies have branded trash floating in the oceans, building products companies have their brands represented in overflowing dumpsters on job sites. It looks bad. It looks guilt producing. If these building products companies would dedicate themselves to creating Zero Waste Construction and making it the norm in America, that’s the kind of goal consumers could get behind and prefer these companies for.

I imagine it as the Zero Waste Construction Coalition. You’d have non-competitive category leaders funding it, promoting it, incentivizing contractors around it, and screaming the story from the rooftops as a reason for consumers to prefer and buy their brands.

So the narrative around this would go something like, “At XYZ company, we believe in leaving the campsite better than we found it. That’s why we’re a founding member of the Zero Waste Construction Coalition – ‘waste not, want not’ is a principle we’re building our business on.”

Scenario 2

In America, we are reminded on a weekly basis of the power of Mother Nature to take away that which we hold most precious. Right now, you can probably conjure up an image you’ve seen recently of people who once had beautiful homes, homes where they raised children and celebrated life’s moments, ripped away by a wildfire, mudslide, hurricane or flood waters.

You can probably also conjure up an image of people in developing nations living in what to us barely seem like livable conditions.

Building products manufacturers have a big role to play here, and it could play out in multiple ways:

  • A manufacturer could take a stand for eliminating its GHG emissions entirely and mandating that all suppliers in its value chain do the same. The narrative could spell out that it’s about protecting the homes of all the people who buy from XYZ manufacturer: “Many of us install security systems in our homes to protect what matters most to us. The longer manufacturers like us contribute to the climate change problem, the more we put families and their homes in harm’s way. That’s unacceptable to us. We’re here to be a part of homes that last for lifetimes, not homes that get taken down by ‘once in a lifetime’ weather events.”
  • A manufacturer could take a stand to “house the world,” creating some kind of consumer engagement program at purchase, as in, “Every time you buy one of our products, please make an additional donation to make sure proper homes are built for people in the poorest parts of the world. We’ll match your donation dollar for dollar and, together, we’ll house the world.”
  • That same kind of program could be created specifically for disaster relief, because, as we say in my office, there is no preventing climate change. It’s already here. Now it’s about how will we deal with it and how will we keep it from getting worse.

Finding your purpose

Hopefully this helps you begin to think about what singular purpose you could anchor your sustainability commitment to. One more point here: you may think some of my examples “sound like CSR initiatives, not like sustainability commitments.” Potato, potahto.

Today’s consumers, particularly Millennials, don’t see the difference. They expect companies to do right by people and the planet. And they expect you to have a bigger purpose beyond making money. The most important thing you can do as a company right now is build trust and loyalty.

We’re in the middle of massive disruption – disruption of the way we buy products and the way we consume media related to those products. It’s getting increasingly hard to tell your polished narrative and influence the sale the way you’d like to. Purpose is the best brand currency. The winning companies will be ones that stand for something, execute against that and build loyalty because of it.

Your purpose must infuse everything you do

One last thing, at the risk of giving you all a reason to ignore my advice: once you decide to stand for something, you have to stand for it across the board, in every employee and consumer experience. Otherwise, you simply aren’t believable. Here are two personal examples (and I’m naming names here in what is truly an attempt to help these companies see themselves the way one consumer – me – sees them, hoping it will be helpful feedback).

Two examples

I popped into Whole Foods the other day to get a sandwich for lunch. Whole Foods claims that “we practice and advance environmental stewardship” as one of their core values. Their website states, “We are a mission-driven company that aims to set the standards of excellence for food retailers. We are building a business in which high standards permeate all aspects of our company.”

So I expect them to behave in an environmentally sustainable way (and I’m happy to shop there because of that – it lets me align my personal brand with theirs). Instead, the woman who made my sandwich peeled off the purple, rubber gloves she donned to make my sandwich … and tossed them over her shoulder into a trash bin. I thought to myself, “Ok, they probably sort materials in the back and they have a way to recycle those or wash and reuse them, something. It just wouldn’t make any sense that Whole Foods is sending thousands of gloves to a landfill every day.”

So, I said to the person making my sandwich, “Hey, what are you going to do with those gloves?” She looked at me like I’d lost my mind and said, “Throw them away.” I said, with a pleading tone, “But you’re Whole Foods!” And she shrugged her shoulders and walked away.

I left that interaction a little crestfallen, like a child learning that Santa doesn’t exist. I thought to myself (loudly), “These guys are supposed to be at the top of the sustainability game! How could they not have this figured out?” And then, “How could they have fooled me like this?”

And a little of my trust for Whole Foods eroded away.

I have a similar feeling every time a flight attendant walks down the aisle of an airplane with the giant grey trash bag everyone’s mindlessly chucking their plastic cups into. Sometimes they’re collecting the cups separately or even collecting all recyclables separately … but it’s inconsistent at best. So it truly makes it hard for me to believe Delta, American, United or any of their regional carriers is truly committed to sustainability, no matter what they say. Their actions speak louder than words – and watching airlines send plastics to a landfill up and down their aircraft aisles is a highly visible action.

I’m not your typical consumer, obviously. But soon, most consumers won’t be typical. Millennials, especially, are attuned. They notice incongruent behavior. So your commitments and words won’t matter if your actions don’t match.

The short answer: Commit, Do, Say

That was 1,500 words to say what I could have said so much more simply to the question posed last week: the answer is for companies to wholeheartedly commit to a purpose, bake it into their entire enterprise, begin behaving according to that purpose and then create a narrative. Commit, Do, Say. That’s our very simple model for how brands will succeed in the very near future.

So find your commitment and bake it in. Make it part of every employee’s behavior, and create a consistent experience for your buyer. Then start talking about it in a heart-felt way and pull your buyer into the story. Not only will your company do better because of it, we’ll all do better because of it.

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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.


  1. Bruce H. Glanville

    I participate every year in at least two conferences that involve “Green” building. Usually Home Performance and RESNET. I also attend many meetings in public venues where lunch is part of the draw. Rarely is there a system for sorting trash on site and I know that there is not anyone outback sorting plastic, glass, aluminum, etc. Walk the talk? I don’t think so.
    Locally, Earth Fare does have separate trash bins, maybe you should start getting your lunch there. Earth Day is a no trash event, so we know how though mostly we don’t perform.

  2. Ray Cooper

    Great ideas. thank you

  3. Suzanne Shelton

    Thanks for your comment, Bruce. It’s disheartening when organizations that know better don’t do better – I get that. The other side of the coin is that although some companies and event venues are succeeding in their zero waste efforts, make no mistake – it’s not easy. Even if you can get everyone to put the right “trash” in the right bins, logistics and recycling/composting facility issues remain. We need to applaud and support the companies and events that are doing it right, and keep making noise about the ones that aren’t so someday, they’ll resolve to walk the talk too.

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