Interview: Why improved sustainability communication is more important than ever during Covid-19 recovery

by Lee Roden

Sustainability communication is particularly challenging during the covid-19 recovery

On April 22nd Whispr Group & SB Insight partner in a webinar looking at the key sustainability insights businesses must be aware of in 2021 – a year where the ongoing Covid-19 recovery makes the already complicated matter of sustainability communication an even greater challenge...

Ahead of the event, we caught up with SB Insight Sustainability Analyst and Marketing Manager Eva Seignette to preview some of the topics and insights we'll be diving into, including how consumer attitudes have been impacted by the pandemic, and the keys to success for the brands that have managed to improve their sustainability communication despite the challenging context.

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Covid-19 is obviously the single biggest talking point of the last 12 months, but do we see evidence that consumers still actively care about sustainability issues too?

Absolutely. Discussions and interest in sustainability is definitely still really high among consumers.

Because of the pandemic people are ultimately seeing what a major crisis can do to a country and its economy, so they're seeing the potential impact an environmental crisis could have in the future. Awareness and interest in sustainability is only growing – we can see that in the data on interest in the Sustainable Brand Index 2021, where the proportion of people showing reduced interest in sustainability due to the pandemic is a clear minority, and the proportion with an increasing interest is significantly larger.

Whispr Group's sustainability communication expert Olof Gränström (who will lead our webinar) warns that perceptions of sustainability issues often don't match reality as a result of poor communication.

Are there any industries where you've seen that the consumer perception of sustainability work being done doesn’t really reflect the work a brand is doing?

There are many industries where there's a lot more work being done than the consumer sees, so there’s a lot of potential there for the consumer to be engaged better.

There are industries where consumers don't really have strong opinions about their sustainability performance for example, like insurance, banking and interestingly, e-commerce, where there's still not a lot of awareness about the impact and sustainability efforts taking place. There's a lot of potential for those industries to be much clearer about what they're doing with sustainability work.

in-body-imageWith e-commerce, the most "dedicated" consumer may have a high level of discussion about the environmental and social impact of that industry, but we don't see that reflected to the same extent among the average consumer at large. So assumptions can be misleading.

So ultimately there's still a lot of sustainability communication taking place that isn’t good enough?

Just because people are becoming more aware of sustainability doesn't mean it’s easier for consumers to understand it. So many companies make green claims now, because brands understand they have to communicate around sustainability. But while there's a lot of communication, the quality has never been this bad. That's worrying as it makes the landscape difficult for the consumer to understand: who should they believe when there's so much out there?

Last year the European Commission (who every year look at websites for breaches of EU Consumer Law) did the same thing on green claims, because they realised a lot of companies make claims about their environmental efforts but don't provide proof of it.

They found that a huge amount of websites provided no evidence or even made false claims about green efforts. So even on the legislative level there's more attention now, and more of an effort to help consumers understand what's trustworthy and inform their sustainability related choices. Brands simply need to engage with it better as they’re getting called out on greenwashing, not just by consumers, but also by legislators.

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How can a data insights partner help brands make it easier for their consumers to take more sustainable choices?

Even if we're motivated to make better choices for the climate and society, consumers are ultimately driven by whether something is made affordable and made easy. They don't have the time to think in detail about every single purchasing choice when they're busy with their everyday life, and that's often where it still goes wrong for brands. They're not making it easy enough to grasp.

Where data insights help is to give brands the tools to understand the different types of consumers that exist among their target groups: not everyone makes the same choice for the same reason. As companies it's not enough to only target the dedicated, highly engaged, five percent of the population who are always thinking about sustainability when purchasing.

Brands also have to understand there are different groups with different knowledge levels and budgets. So it's important to be aware of the obstacles not only for the broader average, but also look deeper at who you're trying to reach, different age groups, geographical locations, and understand the concerns for them. And also seek insight on how to target them – they don't all use the same channels. It’s incredibly important to know who you’re communicating with and what their lifestyle looks like.

Finally: which brands have managed to improve the perception of their sustainability work this year – despite the challenges caused by covid-19? And what can other brands learn from them?

In Denmark there's a new winner this year according to the Sustainable Brand Index – Rema 1000. One reason they've been very successful is as a brand they have a clear sustainability strategy and stick to their focus areas over time. They don't try to jump on different trains, they're very focused on for example food waste and everything over a decade of work has been focused on that.

READ MORE: Sustainability consumers in 2021 – key insights during Covid-19 recovery

That reflects how change is going slow: changing a consumer perception isn’t something you can always achieve within a year’s time. The brands who are successful over time are consistent, stick to what they want to achieve and don’t get easily distracted by trying to get involved in every debate – they contribute where they feel they can have an impact and don’t try to talk about everything for the sake of it.

And ultimately the brands who do well are transparent about what they want to achieve and how they need to get there, really showing their targets and explaining how everything they’re doing is part of it.

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