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By Phil Lempert, The Supermarket Guru 

Just about every supermarket and the brands they offer have made a commitment to sustainability. The problem, as I see it, is that there is no standard definition for sustainability. For some, it may be about the sourcing of ingredients, for others it may be all about the packaging they use for their products and for others it may be about their human resources approach to ensuring a continuation of their workforce. It’s a confusing issue internally for supermarkets and even more confusing as our member RDs try to clarify sustainability issues to shoppers.

Effective Sustainability Communications: A Best Practice Guide for Brands & Marketers – NYU Stern

Randi Kronthal-Sacco is a Senior Scholar at the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) and leads the university’s research including the Sustainable Market Share Index. She shared with me that currently 17% of products (including food and beverages, apparel, tech, household items and personal care) fall into sustainable goods categories; her goal is to increase that percentage to half of all products in the future. Kronthal-Sacco premise is that the path to achieve that goal is through effective and authentic communication which led CSB to partner with Edelman and nine global consumer brands to study environmental sustainability claims that are the most motivating to consumers. This first-of-its kind research “Effective Sustainability Communications: A Best Practice Guide for Brands & Marketers” has identified specific recommendations for retailers and CPG brands to maximize the effectiveness of their messaging and increase the likelihood of purchase. She broke it down for me into a simple mantra: “what to say, where to say it and to whom”.  

The findings are based on three pillars: sustainability amplifies claims, sustainability has mainstream appeal and the top claims linked sustainability to personal benefit. 

The research found that when products made a category claim alone (e.g., “smells great”) 44% of consumers resonated with that claim. When that claim was tied to a sustainability claim (e.g., not tested on animals) the appeal increased to 60 percent. The most effective was when a brand combined the category claim with two sustainable claims: smells great + not tested on animals + contains no phosphates which increased brand reach and appeal to 74 percent. A key learning for retail dietitians from this finding is to utilize this approach in signage, advertising, and social media. Instead of promoting a produce item, for example, as “sustainably farmed” saying “100% sustainability farmed for great quality and delicious taste.” Interestingly, consumers were notably less interested in the scientific reasons behind a brand’s sustainability unless tied to a self-centered reason to care or related to the outcome of specific action(s). For example, “reduced air pollution” alone versus “reduced air pollution for cleaner air to breathe.” 

Another best practice finding was that sustainability is mainstream, not niche. Kronthal-Sacco told me that during the pandemic sustainable products lost no market share even though their retail prices are typically higher than non-sustainable products. The research also showed that the top performing claims had no demonstrable demographic or psychographic differences nor political polarization; in fact, they were largely unified across party lines, gender, family size, education, income, and age groups. “Every leader thinking twice about sustainability on the grounds of it being ‘divisive’ needs to know this: If you communicate sustainability the right way, it will appeal across political affiliation, income, gender, education levels, and age groups,” said Richard Edelman, CEO Edelman in presenting the findings along with Kronthal-Sacco at the Cannes Lions Festival in June. He suggests that “sustainability is an amplifier and if brands embrace it, we can exponentially increase growth and trust.” 

The most important research finding reinforces what we all learned in marketing 101: the most effective claims linked sustainability to personal benefit. To be specific: what’s in it for me? Consumers care most about themselves and their family. The research found the strongest performing claims related sustainability benefits to the impact on individual lives, families, and experiences. Some of the best resonating claims focused on protecting human health (e.g., “grown without harmful ingredients”), saving money (e.g., “help reduce waste and save money”) and supporting local farmers and animal health (e.g., “Working with local farmers to use regenerative farming practices to help conserve nature, encourage biodiversity, and improve soil health”). 

Retail dietitians should also note that the sustainability claims made on packaging, on product hangtags and through in-store signage have the most credibility. Cruelty-free/AmericanHumane and USDA Organic were the top two certification sustainability claims with Non-GMO, B Corp, Rainforest Alliance all with below average rankings, with the researchers seeing that with few exceptions, consumers care less about certifications. 

The summation is that sustainability by itself will not secure a leadership position, however it does broaden reach and appeal, deepens the consumer connection, and should be leveraged through a salient sustainability message that resonates with consumers and supports your retailer brand benefit. The complete report can be downloaded  here “Effective Sustainability Communications: A Best Practice Guide for Brands & Marketers” at no cost and is well worth the read. 

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