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COLUMN: Sustainability claims not to be taken lightly

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 1/4/2019 3:04:00 PM

A major grocer is selling a reusable shopping bag that carries a slogan touting the grocer’s commitment to sustainability. Such sloganeering is increasingly common among Canadian companies, but there are advantages and risks with such an approach. 

‘Sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ are often-used short forms of sustainable development, the term promoted by the United Nations’ (UN’s) World Commission on Environment and Development back in the 1980s, and moderately adopted by international agencies since then. The fact that marketers are beginning to use the terms to imply improved environmental and social responsibility is good news, as it increases public awareness of the concept. But it may not be such good news for the companies sloganeering this way if they have not taken into account the potential downsides. 

The first, and potentially the most significant, downside for a company is that ‘sustainable’ is an undefined term. There are no international standards to determine whether a company is sustainable, or even if it is making progress towards sustainability. 

Canada’s Competition Bureau, the watchdog of misleading advertising in this country, has stated that “the concepts involved in sustainability are highly complex and still under study. At this time there are no definitive methods for measuring sustainability or confirming its accomplishment. Therefore, no claim of achieving sustainability shall be made.” The Bureau goes on to state “sustainability can be measurable only over a very long period. It is therefore very difficult to make a verifiable claim of sustainability at one point in time.” 

The second downside is that there is a small number of environmental and social responsibility advocates who continue to criticize those organizations that inappropriately claim environmental and social leadership. For these advocates, whatever a company does is never enough. While they are perfectly capable of generating their own critiques, it is not unusual for them to be egged on by competing companies or by journalists who are eager to generate a story about corporate malfeasance or misleading claims. Hence claiming that a company is sustainable when the evidence is very limited can get a company into more bad press than good. 

The aforementioned grocer states on its website that it is “continuously working to integrate sustainability into all aspects of [its] core business.” However, its actual achievements seem somewhat limited, which is not surprising when you are a company with hundreds of stores and tens of thousands of products, most of which are beyond your direct control. 

Many of the initiatives listed by the company are works in progress for which no measurable results are presented. Some are industry-wide initiatives in which the company participates; these may be a credit to the socially-responsible members of the industry, but may not be a distinguishing feature of the individual company performance. 

Though the individual initiatives can certainly be characterized as steps in the right direction, there is certainly little to indicate that the company’s sustainability performance is significantly greater than that of its major competitors, or that it is anywhere but a tiny step along the road to greater sustainability. Key environmental and sustainability issues of the day, such as climate change, ocean plastic, and packaging waste get little mention. Claiming to be sustainable while communicating only a little progress towards the goal may not be the wisest corporate strategy. 

It is laudable that a company is linking at least part of its marketing to a commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Those taking such a path need to proceed with expertise and care if the legal and public opinion pitfalls are to be avoided. 

The following are some of the elements of a sustainability marketing strategy that might be taken into account: 

  1. Never claim that a company or a product is sustainable or has achieved sustainability. As Canada’s Competition Bureau has advised, such claims cannot be verified and are likely to constitute misleading advertising. (See also “Environmental Claims: A Guide for Industry and Advertisers”). 
  2. If you claim to be on a path towards sustainability, report measured progress from year to year, set and report achievable targets, and continually update its list of activities to reflect not just long-term issues but also those concerns which have more recently come to the fore, and which are likely to join the list of long-term issues. 
  3. Engage sustainability professionals to manage your sustainability program. Such individuals and consulting teams are increasingly available in Canada. Implementation of your sustainability program is not a job to be given to your communications or government affairs departments as a part-time activity. 
  4. Develop a long-term plan with achievable and measurable long-term and intermediate goals and clear objectives that are not just marketing slogans. 
  5. Benchmark your company against others in your industry. If you are not in a leadership position in a majority of the key sustainability issues facing your industry, then you have little claim that you’re making meaningful progress towards sustainability. 
  6. Remember that sustainability is an approach to be integrated into your company’s activities, and preferably all of your company’s activities, and this is unlikely to happen if responsibility for implementing sustainability is hived off to a separate department, especially one responsible for marketing, promotion, or communications. 
  7. Remember too that sustainability is a short form for sustainable development, which is a strategy being evolved by the UN for global implementation. While the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals may appear to have little relevance to many Canadian companies, the linkages are often present, and failing to acknowledge and account for the long-term 2030 goals of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals while claiming to be more sustainable runs the risk of significant harm to a company’s national and international reputation. 
  8. Have your sustainability strategy reviewed by external experts, not just by your local community environmental group, and prepare annual sustainability reports that are at least verified, if not audited, by qualified professionals.
  9. Moderate the marketing message of all claims related to sustainability, remembering that absolute sustainability is essentially unachievable at the present time and that a tendency to modesty is almost always a virtue in the eyes of those people and organizations who care about sustainability. 
  10. Don’t shy away from adopting a genuine commitment to sustainability as part of your marketing campaign. While it may not be as simple a message as it appears at first glance, competition based on progress towards real sustainable development can help position a company as a corporate leader with investors, customers, and regulators, and contribute meaningfully to an improved bottom line.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).



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