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There’s no mistaking the swelling tide of attention to, and interest in, corporate sustainability – both from the perspective of businesses seeking to operationalize and communicate their commitment to ethical environmental and social issues, and from consumers looking to do the right thing without sacrificing quality or affordability in their brand and product choices.

Guiding millennials through the evolving sustainability landscape may be a key foundational element of creating meaningful conversations on this topic in the years to come. It’s critical because of the size and influence of the millennial generation.

But it’s not easy and not many brands are communicating clearly and consistently.

While corporate sustainability spending is up, many brand initiatives in this space are inward- facing (i.e. manufacturing, distribution, etc.), talking above consumers’ understanding level, and not as relevant or tangible to consumers as they could be. In exploring future-looking best practices for reaching millennials in this evolving consumer landscape, it’s important to understand how the sustainability dialogue has evolved in their lifetime:

1. The language has changed. Where their parents were encouraged to “Go Green,” choose “environmentally-friendly” products and services, and make efforts to “reduce, reuse & recycle”, millennials are more  likely to encounter messaging focused

on “Sustainability.” Qualitative research suggests that this may be a less consumer- friendly term, and one that may not trigger immediate associations to environmental responsibility as the previous lexicon.

2. The scope has broadened. As technology has advanced and the spotlight on the issue in mainstream media has intensified, the number of issues and actions related

to sustainability has also grown. Unlike the “Green” initiatives of yesteryear that seemed more singularly focused on minimizing negative environmental impact, sustainability covers a breadth of issues including natural resource preservation, reduction of carbon imprint, ethical sourcing and manufacturing practices, ensuring businesses’ viability into the foreseeable future, among many other topics. Furthermore, from a consumer perspective, the previously well-defined line between Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility has become blurry.

3. Focus has shifted. Focus today is on internal corporate practices. Today’s sustainability messaging appears far less focused on what the average consumer can do to aid the effort, and more about initiatives that companies are taking. While the running hypothesis is that consumers are more likely to choose brands that reflect their personal values, qualitative research findings over the past 10 years point to a gap between corporate sustainability practices and personal relevance of such initiatives to consumers’ day-to-day lives.

4. Brand communications have proliferated.

Browse the websites of major consumer brands, and one common element emerges – most feature a page or microsite dedicated to their beliefs and activities in the area of sustainability. Many have integrated it into their overall brand purpose, manifesto or corporate pillars, and a significant subset communicate their activity in this space directly to consumers via advertising, digital / social media, and on product packaging. While this communications push is raising the profile of such issues to consumers, the lack of consistency in types of measures being taken, and their sheer ubiquity, makes it difficult to determine who the leaders in corporate sustainability are within a given category.

Mind the Gap

Despite being shaky, incomplete, and somewhat antiquated, mainstream consumers’ understanding of sustainability isn’t completely off the mark. For many, it revolves around three interconnected issues:

• Reducing waste and introduction of harmful substances into the environment;

• Preservingtheplanet’snaturalresourcesand life forms; and

• Ensuring future generations have access to sufficient, clean and safe food, water, and air.

While these areas often represent a part of corporate sustainability and social responsibility manifestos, blue chip companies often place a much broader range of issues under the sustainability umbrella, from ethical manufacturing practices to diversity and inclusion efforts, zero carbon-imprint distribution to charitable giving, health and wellness promotion to local and organic food cultivation.

Arguably, millennials represent a cohort more interested and invested in these issues than any other segment. Research indicates a salient belief among millennials that previous generations have created an environmental and social equity deficit that they are unfairly left to contend with. However, bundling all of these issues into a catchall sustainability platform, may do a disservice to engaging them in a meaningful dialogue with relevance to their individual lives and purchase decisions.

In reviewing a wide swathe of recent corporate sustainability messaging, another key element of the consumer relevance gap is revealed:

the ultimate benefits of corporate sustainable practices are often far too lofty to resonate

at an individual and local level. Much of the typical talk tracked addresses a responsibility to “the planet” or “future generations,” and discusses negative implications of neglecting this responsibility in equally far-off terms.

Localizing and individualizing corporate sustainability positioning is crucial to engaging consumers at large, and millennials specifically, in the next five to ten years.


Consumer research about sustainability points to good and bad news: On the one hand, there’s a high level of awareness that sustainability (when clearly defined) is an important 21st century issue. But unfortunately, most mainstream consumers (i.e. those who don’t self-identify as actively leading a “Green” lifestyle) lack a clear understanding of what it means. When the word is presented in isolation without any topical context, more than half of consumers in a recent Firefly Millward Brown study didn’t associate “Sustainability” with anything related to environmentalism or social responsibility.

When presented in the context of environmentalism, consumer definitions of sustainability come into somewhat clearer focus, but still remain vague and rife with uncertainty. With deeper digging, consumer-generated examples of sustainable living are often quite narrow, limited to “old school” issues like recycling and pollution. Addressing this knowledge gap can be tricky for a couple of reasons: 

• Because mainstream consumers, especially millennials, know that sustainability is “the right thing to do,” there can be a bias toward over-reporting their identification and engagement with such efforts. (Millward Brown has an established set of best practices for conducting research that minimizes this bias in research.) 

• Consumers don’t know what they don’t know. So while they may be taking all the measures they know of, to help ensure a sustainable planet, there are often a plethora of other things they aren’t aware of, and therefore don’t engage in. This high awareness / low understanding dynamic presents an opportunity for brands to educate and empower consumers to be active participants in the global sustainability effort. It furthermore suggests that unlike many marketing efforts that are driven by consumer behaviors, needs and desires, sustainability strategies of the future may be best served by placing brands in the driver’s seat.