At the Bio-Based Products World conference, in March in Amsterdam, two speeches struck me as particularly relevant to our times: that of Tom Domen (Ecover) and of Caroline Laurie (Kingfisher). Both companies are in the consumer market, and seem to have been struggling with the way to convey the message of sustainability to their customers. Let’s struggle with them and see with what they come up. In fact, their answers pretty much coincide: reconnect with nature is the new sustainability. Which includes, but transcends by far the avoidance of greenwashing.
Peace of mind
In a word, the message from both companies is: never talk to your customers like you talk to the experts. The word sustainability has lost its pregnant meaning, let alone the parameters in which we measure it. Talk language that is meaningful to your audience, they say. Kingfisher for instance, a major European home improvement retailer, operating 1,200 stores in 10 countries in Europe under retail brands B&Q, Castorama, Brico Dépôt and Screwfix, has a long-term program called ‘Net Positive’. With this term they express the aim to be not just ‘sustainability neutral’, but to make a positive contribution in this area. But they only use the term for in-company communication. Caroline Laurie, Head of Sustainability at Kingfisher says: ‘For our customers, we don’t use the term Net Positive. We work on finding messaging which resonates with our customers, focussing on customer benefits that go beyond just sustainability.’ For instance, they sell a product Clean Spirit as an alternative to White Spirit. It is non-toxic, non-flammable and safer in the home, for children, pets and to transport. It does the job as well as White Spirit. They promote it heavily in-store. And, Caroline says, this magic combination of performance and cost plus the benefits means that sales are in line with the normal product. ‘Breathe life into sustainability,’ Caroline said in her Amsterdam speech. ‘Make it meaningful to your customers. Do not tell your customers all the actions you take. But translate your achievements in terms of convenience – into peace of mind, in the end.’
Reconnect with nature
Tom Domen, Long Term Innovation Manager (!) at Ecover, a company that develops and sells eco-friendly personal care and household products, was even more outspoken. He was the one who used the term reconnect with nature. First of all, change you own thinking, he said, do not concentrate on minimising negative impacts but concentrate on maximising the positive ones. And clear your mind of the preconception that you, and your customers, mainly make rational environmental choices. Our products are all about nature, in all its respects: human health, environmental health, and sustainability. They are about being more in touch with nature. And the brain works better in nature!
With these concepts, Ecover connects to the macro trend of health and wellness. And particularly to the new ‘biological revolution’ that has taken place in this domain: the recent reappraisal of the microbiome, the ecosystem of microorganisms that exists in us (in our guts), on us (on our skins) and around us (in the root system of plants and trees). The study of the microbiome and the functions it fulfils has only just begun. A successful company like Mother Dirt is all about restoring good bacteria to our skins. To reconnect with nature means sustaining such relations to nature, preventing ‘unnatural’ disconnections, and finally actively reconnect. For Ecover’s products, this means that they go far beyond ‘green’. They are part of a lifestyle, to which all company products and communications should connect. If a cleaning product is not just that but also a lifestyle statement, the entire company should relate to this emerging lifestyle. Materials used in packaging, and its styling, should reflect this. And indeed, Ecover is in the process of an overhaul of its packaging strategy.
The old term sustainability still means a lot to me, I can use it to connect to a meaningful lifestyle with many implications. But for quite a long time my friends have been telling me that the word is outdated and has become void. Reconnect with nature, it is a message that appeals to many people – a reformulation of the old message, but clearer to the audience nowadays.