Sustainability: When Brands Push the “Cause” Button, Do Consumers Turn Off?

It seems like everyone today is posting about their causes, causing causes to trend, and causing businesses to ask: “Should we get all caused up?”

Campaigns like Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ and Air BnB’s ‘We Accept’ show that when brands take a stand on important social issues it can be rewarding all around. But consumers are justifiably sceptical.

In even recent memory, many big-assed brands have lied to and manipulated their customers. Brand transparency is a recent development that lots of brands are taking their sweet time adapting to. So, when big brands hop on board buzzy social causes, it’s only sensible to question their motives and results. In a word, their authenticity.

We’ve explored the landscape and offer this biased, opinionated and yet, refreshingly well-informed review of current efforts in support of The Plastic Ocean. This is one topic that has a lot of people’s attention (as perpetuated by social media) because so many of us live off the bounty of the ocean – as does the planet. Dead oceans mean no more Netflix, or our first subject, no more burger joints.

A&W – Change IS Good

The fast-food industry is rife with controversy. Whilst targeting families with young children, fast food has been linked time and again to the rise in obesity; a growing an epidemic in North America. Add to that a dash of questionable factory farming practices, and we’ve got an industry that is in need of some PR. So, of course, these brands are looking for a way to reign in some of their wayward customers.

Sustainability to the Rescue!

On January 7, A&W dropped a sculpture made of straws in Toronto’s Union Station. The straws spell out the words ‘Change is Good,’ with accompanying media telling consumers that they’re embracing the trend of saving sea turtles (and the ocean) from a plasticky demise by removing straws from stores.

Image result for change is good a&w straws

Most articles we’ve found on the subject fail to mention what we at Blade would consider a critical part of the story behind this installation – it’s only the most recent part of A&W’s ongoing Environmental Leadership Strategy. Since 2010, they’ve made a slew of changes such as; working with producers who have implemented more humane farming practices; eliminating steroids and hormones from their meats; and joining the National Zero Waste Council of Canada. They are continuing to expand on this initiative, and seem keen on inspiring their industry to do the same.

So, what’s the problem? Is practicing sustainability based on social media trends bad? Not inherently. But when companies like A&W loudly broadcast only one trendy effort, they may be missing the mark. They run the risk of appearing opportunistic – capitalizing on a cause rather than authentically embracing it. To the sceptical consumer who may already have a biased opinion of the fast food industry as a whole, this lack of authenticity may come across as deceitful. While we whole-heartedly commend the practice of sustainability, we think A&W is missing the opportunity to highlight their full suite of long term changes that make this one feel more authentic.

Adidas – Working Hard for Sustainability

In the late 90s, there was a scandal about the fashion industry’s involvement in Third World child labour practices. Reports surfaced claiming that brands (including Adidas) were involved in working children 15 hour days, in turn denying them of an education. While many brands denied allegations, the damage was done. Though it’s been roughly 20 years, we’re willing to bet that many adults today still feel some level of distrust towards these brands.

Sustainability to the Rescue! 

Some studies suggest there are plastic islands roughly three times the size of France floating somewhere between California and Hawaii. Adidas has stepped in to find a way to make shoes out of wet trash by partnering with Parley for the Oceans – an organization of thinkers who brainstorm on how to fix this problem. Adidas has planned that by 2020 all of their shoes are to be made using recycled plastic. Adidas stated they’d sold 1 million of their ocean plastic Parley shoes in 2017 – each shoe reusing 11 plastic bottles.

As sceptical consumers, we have questions. A quick search of the Adidas website will show that the Parley shoes run as high as $310 – a fairly steep price to pay for a pair of sneakers. Are we paying a hefty markup simply based on the feel-good aspect of saving the oceans? Are these shoes actually high quality and well made, or has Adidas simply found another way to maximize profits through dishonesty and justify high price tags by slapping on the stamp of ‘sustainability’?

Adidas would do well to give consumers more information about where these shoes are coming from – something they failed to do in the past. It may be hard for consumers to put ‘recycled products’ and ‘high price tag’ together – aren’t they utilizing a material that would have otherwise been thrown away? While they may, in fact, be paying for the gathering and processing of materials – consumers expect brand transparency in order to establish trust. Otherwise, it may be interpreted that they’re simply paying a premium for sustainability – which doesn’t bode well for the authenticity of the action.

How to Introduce Sustainability Effectively

Sustainability is important to consumers, and it’s going to become even more important as the consumer base is taken over by Millennials and Gen Zers. WHY exactly? Their numbers and demographic footprint alone – but also based on their values:

“Gen Z, which will account for 40% of all consumers globally by 2020, is the generation most likely to believe that companies should address urgent social and environmental issues: 94% of those surveyed said so (compared to 87% of millennials).” (BSR)

These are generations who have grown up knowing inherently that brands will say anything to influence blind consumerism. They aren’t going to trust a brand’s motives easily.

So, yes – sustainability is important. But we say: so is authenticity. The real MVPs are going to be the companies who build their brands based on bettering the planet for the right reasons. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of tactics used to influence their purchase, and they are happy to shoot down brands who miss the mark. On the flip side, brands that are actively applying impactful solutions because they see it as their duty as influential groups of humans and not just to make sales are going to be greeted with open arms – and most likely find success because of it.

Check back soon as we highlight a few companies that we think are doing a bang-up job of focusing on sustainability for the right reasons.


Blade Brain Trust

The Blade Brain Trust brings you relevant insights to help you build your brand community.

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