„Come to where the future is” – Communication
strategies for sustainable consumption
Sustainability Lounge of 18.09.2007
President of the Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband e.V. (Federation of German Consumer Organisations, or vzbv)
Chief Operating Officer, J. Walter Thompson Group Germany
Head of Corporate Responsibility, Tchibo GmbH
Sustainability in companies – old wine in new bottles?
Achim Lohrie, responsible for sustainability in the range of Tchibo GmbH,
opened the discussion. In answer to the question as to why a customer at
Tchibo can find no reference whatsoever to sustainability, Lohrie said
that this was a deliberate decision. The highlighting of certain products
as "sustainable" would cause customers to ask what the situation
was with the other products, and what was non-sustainable about them.
Altogether, sustainability was becoming more and more important for Tchibo, in the non-food sector as well.
Till Wagner, Chief Operating Officer of J. Walther Thompson Deutschland, commented that sustainability in industry was a much older topic than the impression frequently given today, for products had always needed a defined quality, and sustainability also came under the old familiar term of quality management. While standards relating to hygiene had been more important in the past, today it was the sustainability standards that were important. Shell, with its completely new advertising campaign, was a good example of this.
Gerd Billen, Chairman of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations and former head of the Environmental and Social Policies Division at the Otto Group, pointed out that sustainability had been of importance for companies as early as the 80s, but that they had only started late with the communication of the topic. Thus, compliance with social standards or the use of bio-cotton by Otto had long been an important factor in creating customer loyalty and acquiring new customers.
How can sustainability be sold?
At the moment, consumers are highly sensitive about the environmental
and social compatibility of products – this was the unanimous view
in the panel. Customers are aware of their power at the shop counter and,
if possible, make use of this power.
Till Wagner explained that sustainable product qualities could only represent additional advantages for a product whose other properties such as taste, appearance or handling properties were already right. For the same reason, Tchibo had decided against ecological packaging for its Fair Trade coffee and had decided in favour of maintaining its tried and tested high-gloss packaging, explained Mr Lohrie.
Nina Scheer from UnternehmensGrün criticised this position as short-sighted: as a consumer, one could certainly see a lack of sustainability, the high-gloss packaging of Tchibo was a good example of this. By contrast, environment-friendly packaging could have its own, more powerful aesthetic appeal.
Mr Wagner quoted the current campaigns by the automobile industry as examples of the successful communication of sustainability. The car manufacturers had taken a bit more time, but in his view the current ranges were good solutions in technical terms. According to Mr Wagner, the campaign for the new Porsche was less successful, however, since this was implausible in view of the energy consumption of the rest of their models.
On the subject of corporate communication, Gerd Billen remarked that 35 billion euro is spent on advertising in Germany every year. This figure was taken up by the audience: what is the responsibility of the advertising companies in view of this gigantic budget? In car advertising, for example, it was still only the performance idea that counted, leading, among other things, to a situation where so many off-road vehicles could be seen in the cities. The advertising sector should take countermeasures here as well.
Credible communication or greenwashing?
But even if it says sustainability on the outside, is there really sustainability on the inside? And how can consumers judge this? Gerd Billen believes reporting obligations as well as clear, uniform criteria and independent control of the compliance with these criteria are necessary. The government does not necessarily need to check compliance, but it must provide the framework, as for example with the Bio-Siegel. Otherwise, the consumers have no chance of judging the credibility of a company. Here, Till Wagner remarked that in the age of Internet and online communities, lies are always found out sooner or later and that a company then only harms itself.
Ready for the mass market?
Marion Sollbach from the Metro Group argued that sustainable
products still represented a niche market. Till Wagner pointed out that one
of the most successful brands was the cosmetics brand Dove. This brand had
set up a milestone in the social sector with a campaign for "Real Beauty" and
had recorded an increase in sales of 200 % in the last two years. This example
showed that for a long time now sustainability has no longer been merely
a niche topic.
The question as to whether the use of bio-cotton was not too expensive for a company and, in the final resort, also for consumers with average incomes, was answered by Gerd Billen in the negative. As an example he quoted C&A with its affordable range of bio-cotton articles of clothing. A barrier to the switch to sustainable products was frequently not the price, but a lack of courage and a lack of consistency in public relation activities. After all, it was not enough for a company to use bio-cotton. Sustainability standards had to be met in all sectors.
For the consumer organisations, the quality of a product was just as important as its price. He was against slogans such as "Geiz ist Geil" (loosely translated: stinginess is cool). Another task of the consumer organisations could be to start a critical discussion with consumers so that they attach greater importance to quality.
Legislation – locomotive for or obstacle to sustainability?
For Gerd Billen, politics plays a fairly insignificant part
in the implementation of sustainable production. At Otto, for example, it
was the consumer pressure that initiated the changes in the company. In their
efforts, many companies even went far beyond what legislation calls for,
since consumers are prepared to pay more for sustainable products.
For Till Wagner, sustainability and politics do not go together either; after all, what the politicians were doing was the opposite of sustainability: they picked up topics only briefly, like the topic of toys at the moment. This was not how to develop long-term perspectives.
Achim Lohrie believes that statutory bans are only justified if there is a health risk for customers and the market is not in a position to regulate itself. Regulations concerning the combinations of materials in products did not help the idea of sustainability, since they acted as a brake on any further commitment. Framework agreements, on the other hand, that encouraged companies to pay attention to social standards like for example minimum wages, were important.
For Gerd Billen, however, question marks must be put behind the voluntary undertakings of industry, because such undertakings have only rarely been successful.
The audience also expressed criticism of excessive belief in the market. Many sustainable and innovative products could not gain acceptance on the market because old and non-sustainable products were still allowed. Here, statutory regulations and prohibitions could play a significant role in the sustainability process.
A look at the wider picture
As far as sustainable consumption is concerned, how does
Germany fare by international standards?
In Great Britain, for example, says Gerd Billen, sustainability is perceived by companies as an opportunity, more so than in Germany. Here too, the discussion on climate change is being conducted far more intensely than in Germany. This means that for British companies, the subject of sustainability is higher up on the agenda. The British company The Body Shop, for example, has consistently implemented its sustainability concept for many years now.
The discussion was then continued in small groups over snacks and beverages.
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