It turns out that it is easy being green—too easy. As anyone who’s ever visited a supermarket lately has noticed, brands of all stripes have been slapping labels attesting to eco-friendliness on their products, making all manner of green claims and generally touting their membership in Club Green to anyone and everyone within sight. The problem is that overuse and misuse has robbed green of its meaning. Where once it meant planet-friendly (made with recycled materials, organically grown and the like), now it’s very often used to connote sustainability, with its far broader range of issues, ranging from Workers’ Compensation and Fair Trade to social activism. In sum, green can mean virtually anything. And that suggests it will eventually mean absolutely nothing.
What today’s more mindful, savvier and more demanding consumers are seeking are brand partners that have evolved beyond green to something else: clear.
These companies communicate a clear vision and goals, and operate with a clear corporate conscience. Just as household brands are promoting their “free and clear” product attributes (“No dyes or perfumes! No artificial ingredients!”), future-focused corporate brands are working to rid themselves of business impurities. Being clear is not just about letting people see who you really are; it’s also about developing a deep understanding of your business and brand, and determining what and where you intend them to be five, 10, even 20 years down the road.
We’ve been watching this trend developing for some time and believe that “clear” companies of tomorrow will share some key attributes. First among them are well-defined and communicated goals. We’ve all read mission statements that simultaneously promise everything and nothing (“To improve and enhance the lives of those whom we touch,” etc.). But such feel-good, amorphous pledges are simply not enough in an era in which consumers demand transparency and accountability. When U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer announced its “Plan A” sustainability program in 2007, for instance, it didn’t speak in generalities about its high-minded goals; rather, it detailed 100 specific actions and goals the company would work toward over five years, including becoming carbon neutral, reducing energy use in stores 25 percent per square foot and changing over all company cars to diesel or hybrid. Customers can track M&S’s progress through its Web site.
Another key attribute that “clear” brands will share is a purposeful culture. Consumers are no longer willing to let businesses exist simply for the purpose of making money; they want them to contribute to the greater good. Political media strategist Alex Castellanos likens the pressures on today’s corporations to those traditionally placed on politicians: “We are looking to corporations to be societal leaders…What is their mission? What is their purpose? I want to understand why my candidate is better than the other guy.” As further evidence of this shift, 85 percent of adults surveyed by Euro RSCG in the U.S., U.K. and France consider it important that a company stand for something other than just profitability. And nearly six in 10 Americans say it has become more important to them to feel good about the companies with which they do business. More than half prefer to buy from companies that share their personal values.
Open channels of communication and collaboration constitute another key distinguisher of tomorrow’s “clear” brand. Conscious companies take every opportunity to invite people in—and that applies to everyone from consumers to investors to the media. Case in point: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh currently has nearly 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and counting. He uses the medium to keep his corporate door open, to give customers and others a better sense of the company, and to solicit feedback on brand initiatives.
Finally, the “clear” company espouses a strong commitment to leadership. As companies move past greenwashing and toward actions that truly contribute to the greater good, the most significant benefit will accrue to those businesses and brands that push the bar ever higher. Some consider Walmart an unlikely corporate hero, but the success—and impact—of its sustainability initiatives cannot be denied. Now, having announced plans to create a global index that will be used to rate and label products on their social and environmental impact, the mega-retailer has potentially changed the future of manufacturing and packaging.
A recent survey from Euro RSCG found that 74 percent of consumers believe businesses bear as much responsibility as governments for driving positive social change. In the future, smart companies will act in a way that illustrates that they, too, believe they have a right and responsibility to drive that change. Importantly, the wave of support for such activities creates a terrific leadership platform for those executives with the necessary skills and sensibilities to drive it from the front lines.
Andrew Benett and Greg Welch are co-authors of Good for Business: The Rise of the Conscious Corporation. Welch is the global practice leader, consumer goods and services practice, Spencer Stuart; Benett is the CEO of Arnold Worldwide and Chief Strategy Officer of Havas Worldwide.