Ethical consumerism is booming. In the UK it reached record levels in 2019 at £98 billion. You’d think that for ethical and sustainable businesses this would be great news – and in many ways it is, but there is a downside. With so many companies jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, there is an increasing amount of greenwashing. This is making it harder and harder for the genuinely sustainable companies to stand out and be noticed, and, in turn, almost impossible for consumers to be sure that what they are buying is truly ethical and sustainable. What may look ‘green’ on the surface, could have unethical supply chains or additional ingredients that are not sustainable – and who decides what is green anyway?
In order to mitigate this problem, genuinely sustainable businesses are looking to external accreditation as a way to restore trust among consumers. This external audit evaluates the whole supply chain – not just the final product. If achieved, accreditation can provide businesses with a legitimate USP and reinforce their sincere commitment to protecting the planet.
Achieving a respected and recognised certification has been proven to drive growth by giving the consumers peace of mind and making purchasing choices simpler. A survey conducted by Futerra demonstrated that 88% of consumers would like brands to help them make more environmentally friendly and ethical choices. It also helps to attract talent – in a recent survey (Fast Company Report) more than 40% of millennials reported that they would choose an employer because of their sustainability performance.
For sustainable businesses to thrive, not just survive in today’s economy, it is essential that they stand out from the greenwashing and make it easy for consumers to understand what they are buying and how their product is more sustainable and less environmentally damaging than a competitor. Keen as consumers are to purchase ethically, they need the choice to be made easy for them – not something that requires mountains of research and double-checking. They need to be able to trust the businesses they choose.
This is becoming increasingly important as consumers continue to change their spending habits to focus on not just cost but an additional three separate elements of business that relate to social, environmental and economic growth or triple bottom line reporting: people, planet and profit.
So how can businesses create this feeling of trust with their customers? Whilst some ethical businesses may be tempted to opt for the cheaper route of self-accreditation, this is best avoided. Consumers are already suspicious of claims that are not backed up with evidence and are wary of greenwash. In some cases, claiming green credentials without offering any proof can do more harm than good as consumers question the veracity of the statements thereby making them question other claims made by the company too.
It is important to make sure that your organisation really understands and has bought into the value of accreditation. According to a report by Shelton Group 2018, 86% of consumers say companies should take a stand on social and environmental issues. Both consumers and investors are flocking to companies that demonstrate sustainability but will actively block those they believe to be greenwashing. The right accreditation will make your business instantly attractive to both, increasing your profitability and your opportunity for growth.
So how can you choose the right accreditation scheme and certification for your business? Here are 5 tips to help you get started:
- Do your research because customers that care will. Some well-known accreditors have eroded consumer trust due to poor policing and a lack of transparency. For example, the Red Tractor food labelling scheme whose motto is “safe, traceable, and farmed with care” was exposed in 2019 by an animal rights charity as untrustworthy after ‘shocking abuse’ was filmed undercover at certified farms. This type of exposure will make consumers think twice before purchasing from any businesses involved in this scheme in the future
- Ensure the accreditation process is robust. Where does it come from? Who created it? Do they have the expertise to vet both the brands and the products that are being offered? The Beyond Bamboo supplier accreditation, for example, looks at the whole supply chain from start to finish providing a ‘full service’ that reviews all aspects of the chain and provides support for further development towards sustainability moving forward. This added support can really help businesses make progress on packaging which is a massive contributor to environmental waste. In 2017, the UK generated 9.3 million tonnes of packaging waste.
- Collaboration is key, working with accreditors that collaborate with like-minded organisations to share best practice and hold one another accountable gives further security. A great example is the Sustainable Spa Association which has partnered with other sustainable hospitality organisations to provide a community and hub for sustainable procurement. These networks of organisations are growing and more and more are working towards the same goal: to go beyond sustainable and reverse the damage caused by climate change. By collaborating with one another they are sharing knowledge and best practice, they are able to offer a more robust accreditation, and they demonstrate transparency.
- Find an accreditation service that is aligned with your mission and purpose. If triple-bottom line reporting is important to you – accreditation will need to cover both sustainability (environmental impact) and ethics (people and community). Once you have researched the accreditors, set up a call with the three organisations you like most and don’t be afraid to interview them. Drill down into who they are and what they stand for. Ask them to explain what the process will be and the level of support that is on offer. This will allow you to get a feel for the people you will work with as well as the service on offer and ensure that you have an accreditation service that not only draws in consumers, but also feels good to you as a business.
- The certification you choose will inevitably depend on the products and services that you are providing. The key element, regardless of your business type, is looking at what a third-party accreditor stands to gain from working with your business. Documentaries such as Seaspiracy and Cowspiracy have further dampened consumer trust as some well-known accreditors have been accused of prioritising financial gain over regulating the businesses that they work with. The power of the accusations included in these documentaries cannot be ignored with many viewers deciding to go vegan as a result of the statistics and information included. This loss of trust can be avoided as some businesses will offer accreditation as part of a working relationship. These companies understand the value that accreditation brings to all parties and therefore are willing to put reputation above profitability. This type of arrangement can give sustainable businesses the peace of mind that they need and negate the risk (time and resources) of applying for accreditation.
Our global ecosystem is fast becoming even more fragile as we squander much needed resources, pollute the planet with waste and continue to release gasses that contribute to degenerative climate change. Because of this, and the growing number of documentaries, exposés and stories that raise awareness of the issues, consumers are starting to vote with their wallets and select brands that are committed to going beyond sustainable to restore and rejuvenate the planet. They are looking for brands that have ethical stories behind the label. Businesses that are prepared to do the work and provide accreditation will be the champions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tiffany Kelly is founder of Beyond Bamboo, a global community of sustainable products, services and suppliers working as a collective to restore and rejuvenate the planet. With a marketplace, a B2B supplier portal, a knowledge hub and a team of passionate people dedicated to triple bottom line reporting, Beyond Bamboo aims to help us all do well by doing good.