What Makes a Product Sustainable, Anyway?

Dec 7, 2021 | Blog

EXPLAINING THE SUSTAINABILITY CLAIMS OF “PLANT-BASED” AND “ECO-FRIENDLY” PRODUCTS

For good reason, a majority of brands are shifting their business practices to be more sustainable. Consumers look for brands that take climate action seriously – talking the talk and walking the walk. And while it’s easier than ever for customers to learn more about a company and make highly informed purchase decisions, it can be quite difficult to know which companies are truly meeting a higher ethical standard, and which are just making sustainability claims without backing them up or explaining the overall benefit.

This lack of detail is commonly called “greenwashing” – the practice of using terms like “reduced impact” or “smaller footprint” without providing any specifics about what those claims are really saying. Sure, we feel good when we believe we’re purchasing a planet-positive item, but if we don’t understand why it’s good for the planet, how do we know that it really is?

Holding Brands Accountable for Sustainability Claims

There has been a smattering of legislation and policy initiatives – most notably in the European Union – to address false environmental product claims and require that brands label their products with specific details about the environmental benefits.

Consumer preference is a primary driver of these initiatives, especially as sustainability becomes an increasingly important factor in buying decisions and consumers hold more brands’ feet to the fire to level up. In fact, a study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that more than 9 in 10 business leaders believe consumers would hold their company accountable for its environmental impact – more than internal stakeholders, employees, or even government regulators.

Large tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint and make other sweeping sustainability changes, and these big names have acted as a catalyst for companies in other industries to follow suit. Especially in the fashion and textile industries, these efforts are being widely adopted. Sustainability changes include:

  • Climate Pledges: Making a commitment to investing in products and practices that support sustainability efforts.
  • Environmental Goals: Setting a target like reaching net-zero carbon emissions or becoming 100% carbon neutral within a certain time period, and making the necessary changes within the company to make that goal happen.
  • Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives: Contributing volunteer hours or financial support to organizations and efforts that are focused on being good stewards of the environment and community.

The companies that aren’t just talking about sustainability but actively working to achieve it aren’t keeping it a secret. Patagonia, Aflac, Salesforce, and INSITE® (for example) make it clear what the sustainability gains are so consumers and businesses alike can feel confident about a purchase or partnership.

Messaging “Sustainability” Correctly

So, what does it look like when a company is messaging its sustainability claims correctly? What should your company be doing to show your consumers that you’re not just greenwashing?

Businesses today are in all different points of maturity. Some companies that have been around for decades might be less concerned with becoming more sustainable and have built up a loyal customer base that isn’t pushing for it. However, other older companies are making changes to meet the increasing concerns and expectations of a world in climate crisis. And newer companies are setting a standard, with most not only being fully transparent about their sustainability efforts but building their entire business model around sustainability.

Given these varying factors, here are four ways your company can demonstrate a commitment to sustainability by backing up your sustainability claims.

1) Be Transparent

Companies that are putting sustainability efforts into practice aren’t keeping that information a secret; it’s a key competitive advantage and selling point for consumers. When it comes to being a sustainable company, these practices – and backing them up with transparent information – are key to shaping your sustainability story:

  • How your materials are sourced: There’s a lot to be said for a company that makes an effort to source its materials ethically and through sustainable practices.
  • How your company is run: Corporate social responsibility is a major factor in determining how ethical and altruistic a company is. How are employees treated? Does your company contribute financially to important causes or lend a hand to support community needs?
  • What the sustainability benefits are: If you talk about a “lower-impact” or “smaller footprint” without specific detail about what those claims really mean, you’ll lose trust and credibility. Provide the numbers and information to back up the sustainability claims – or don’t make the claim in the first place.

2) Provide Product Information

Consumers are increasingly concerned with where their products come from and how they are made, and look for information about sustainable farming practices, fair trade, or ethical sourcing. Often, companies make a sustainability claim about one aspect of the business and give the impression of being a fully sustainable company, which is misleading. For example, claiming a lower carbon footprint because of adjustments to shipping wouldn’t change the fact that the products aren’t sustainably- or ethically sourced.

This point echoes the first about being transparent, and when it comes to product details, think about what your customers are looking for and how to put practices into place that deliver on those needs. Even making efforts toward greater sustainability can go a long way in building customer loyalty.

3) Craft a Company Mission Statement

Companies that are committed to and passionate about sustainability will talk about their efforts in a company mission statement. These companies adopt sustainability initiatives as core focuses of their business operations and often provide detail into what those initiatives are and how they’re making a difference.

You may already have a company mission statement that is not focused on sustainability initiatives, but if and when you adopt planet-forward changes within your company, reflecting those efforts in your mission statement is a great way to share your commitment and make an impression on consumers.

4) Pursue and Showcase Certifications

Ethical or sustainable certifications demonstrate that a company is acting in ways that meet standards set by third-party organizations or groups; for example, certification systems like Fair Trade International, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), or the Organic Cotton Standard (OGS). You can weed through the many different certifications, what they all mean, and what practices they might not account for in this thorough post by Ecocult.

Obtaining these certifications is completely voluntary for brands, and you can choose which certifications to pursue and how you want to talk about them. For the eco-conscious consumer, a certification is further proof that a brand is serious about sustainability and has done enough work to receive third-party approval. That kind of validation can go a long way.

At INSITE®, we make it a point to showcase specific sustainability benefits to back up claims around a lower impact and smaller footprint. When you’re looking to partner with a brand like INSITE® to enhance your product line, and you care about elevating or sustaining your planet-friendly initiatives, it’s important to know who you’re working with.

Greenwashing is prevalent because it’s relatively simple to make sweeping sustainability claims without backing them up with specific numbers or other information. But when you know what to look for within a brand’s product messaging, it becomes easier to parse out the brands that are not only committed to sustainability, but have adopted sustainable practices that truly make a difference.

Work with a sustainability-focused brand that backs up its claims. INSITE® Insoles has made measurable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and non-renewable energy by using bio-based propanediol instead of the typical petro-chemical alternative, sources materials that are fully traceable to sustainable farming practices, and uses renewable industrial field corn to create plant-based compounds rather than non-renewable synthetic materials.

Read More: How Our Manufacturing Practices Create Direct Sustainability Benefits

Looking for a sustainable insole for your footwear line? Contact us to get a sample insole, view our plant-based materials, or start a conversation about a partnership.

 

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