Can companies engage consumers to tackle our world’s pressing challenges?

Business, Consumers and Sustainability

I recently came across the joint UN Global Compact and Accenture Study on the role of business and consumers in sustainability.

Everyday in our social enterprise we live and breathe “driving sustainable business”. So the research was a confirmation on how critical it is to bridge companies, communities and consumers.

On the business front, the consensus among global CEOs is that a) business is not doing enough to tackle sustainability challenges and b) the world economy is not on track the meet the needs of a growing population.

One of the other striking points from the study is that sustainability communication needs to evolve. When concerns over greenwashing have emerged over the last few decades companies have responded by giving more facts and figures about their sustainability efforts. But marketeers have always known that engaging consumers emotionally is key to influencing them. However, the proportion of companies where the marketing function was “engaged” on sustainability has dropped from 42% to just 28%.

72% of 30,000 consumers surveyed across 20 countries in 5 continents believe that business is failing to live up to expectations. (Source: Data from Havas Media/Accenture survey of 30,000 consumers worldwide.)

On the consumer front, consumers also believe business is failing to take care of the planet and society. A staggering 72% of consumers believe that business is failing to live up to expectations. Traditionally companies have approached sustainability through philanthropy or Corporate Social Responsibility. Neither of these approaches fully integrate into the products and services that people or businesses consume. From a consumer perspective, they are simply abstract.

Also, people are beginning to hold companies and governments equally responsible in improving the quality of their lives. 86% expect governments to directly improve their quality of life; 85% expect the same of the companies from which they buy.

“What we firmly believe is that if we focus our company on improving the lives of the world’s citizens and come up with genuine sustainable solutions, we are more in synch with consumers and society and ultimately this will result in good shareholder returns.” — Paul Polman, Unilever CEO

All this is convincing data to help companies move away from the traditional approach to sustainability and start engaging consumers in the journey. A few of the recommendations for businesses include:

1. Build public trust and transparency

Authenticity is key. We strongly believe that one great way to build and earn this trust is to engage local communities and drive ground-up solutions to tackle social and environmental challenges. “Vietnam Water Heroes”, our project for Unilever brand Comfort OneRinse has helped to create a groundswell of water heroes to help tackle Vietnam’s water challenges.

Professor Con, one of the “Vietnam Water Heroes” developed a filter to remove arsenic from ground water

2. Find specific consumers to drive sustainability agenda

For example mothers and “young optimists” (the under-35s). Mothers are more loyal to responsible brands (72%) and they’re highly influential, with 64% reporting that they recommend brands that behave responsibly and contribute to wellbeing. Two-thirds of young optimists actively buy sustainable brands, with nearly one in four always considering the social and environmental ethics of brands when making purchasing decisions.

3. Genuinely improve the lives of consumers

Improving consumer health and well-being or address social, economic or environmental challenges. Consumers are looking to products and services that not just address their functional needs but which also serve the needs of the wider community.

Our project for Standard Chartered engaged employees to raise funds for “Seeing is Believing”

A wonderful example is Standard Chartered Bank’s “Seeing is Believing” — their flagship sustainability project tackling avoidable blindness across the developing world where its present.

4. Communicate throughout the consumer journey

People are increasingly looking up to businesses to be relevant to their local communities. This presents a wonderful opportunity for businesses to demonstrate how they are making a meaningful difference to people’s lives. Over the last 5 years, Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach 5” campaign has consistently communicated its lifesaving social mission to spread the importance of good hand-washing habits around the world.

Consumers too can actively play a part in addressing sustainability challenges by “voting with their wallets” instead of waiting for businesses and governments to create sustainable products and policies. We all have a choice to be mindful of our consumption — sometimes buying to satisfy needs rather than wants can be the most simple and sustainable thing to do.

The Accenture study can be downloaded here:

Article by Ashwin Subramaniam — Co-Founder & Projects Director, Gone Adventurin’

Photo Credits — Jacqui Hocking — Creative Director, Gone Adventurin’

Ashwin Subramaniam

Firmly believe that companies can unlock great business opportunities in tackling social and environmental challenges in their communities. Check out our story at or if you'd like to get in touch for a coffee or chat, email me at We'd love to hear your story.

No Comments

Post A Comment