In recent years, consumers have jumped onto the sustainability bandwagon when purchasing products or services and businesses are starting to notice. Yearly sustainability reports have become readily available for consumers to search the brands they buy from and read about environmental, economic, cultural and social efforts to produce and manufacture ethically. Even with all of the conversation surrounding sustainability, “fast fashion,” poor labor practices and immoral business standards still exist. This problem poses two questions. First, how do consumers know what to and what not to buy if there is a lack of transparency in some industries about sustainable business? And second, why do businesses continue to “greenwash” consumers if pressures are increasing around sustainable practices?
Each business must consider its audience when marketing sustainable business practices. While some industries may not be concerned about consumer behavior with business-to-business transactions, certain industries heavily depend on the consumer’s attitudes towards how a product or service is made. Olivia Velazquez ’21, an environmental and interior design major, works on projects every day to create models using the built environment and sustainable material. Her major and career path have affected how she lives her life; Velazquez thrift shops for clothing and considers the carbon footprint of the companies she purchases from. Being a part of the younger generation, Velazquez feels that her peers are much more willing to become educated consumers.
As both a consumer and designer, Velazquez fears big businesses are not concerned with sustainable products as much as they should be. She explained, “For businesses, sustainable practices can often be expensive to implement, but in the long run they actually can save the business money. But, because the upfront cost is so high, businesses may not see this as beneficial unless there has been proof that it works.”
So, are environmentally-friendly products still a niche market? If there are still companies producing cheaper more accessible options for products, the consumer may default to the cheaper option rather than spending extra dollars on a more sustainable option. Consumer behavior is a business’s top priority to create revenue and establish a relationship with the buyer, yet consumer behavior may not need to be the change for sustainable products and services to go into style.
If every business manufactures and markets its products as environmentally friendly, consumers have no choice but to shop sustainably, according to Todd Moss. Moss, chair and associate professor of entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, believes the consumer trends in shopping sustainably are largely due to big businesses and can be changed easily by the decisions of the large businesses rather than the consumers changing their purchasing tendencies.
Consumers of different demographics will inevitably behave in a variety of ways when shopping sustainably. “If nothing on the shelf is sustainable, we don’t have a choice,” said Moss. “The effect is much greater if you change the minds of the leadership at a big company rather than the consumers themselves.”
Regardless, big business leaders in the industry have little reason not to be on the sustainability bandwagon and to exercise corporate social responsibility. Even the most popular brands may be greenwashing consumers to deter suspicion or investigation and maintain revenue. So, not only do businesses have a responsibility to be transparent, but consumers must also be aware of greenwashing tendencies and what is fact or fiction.
What does the future of big business look like as the conversation of sustainability enters executive meetings? Moss and Velazquez are optimistic to see more than just meaningful conversations about the environment but an overwhelming majority of sustainable business in the future. With time and planning, businesses can transform themselves to be transparent and reliable through sustainability initiatives and practices.
Velazquez shares her ideal image of sustainable business for the future, so that she, and millions of other consumers can understand what they are purchasing and how it was made. “I would hope that a sustainable business would be very transparent about how their products are made, where they source their materials to make the product, educate the consumer on the proper way to dispose of the product, pay the workers that are making the product a fair wage and actually use nature as a way to guide their business, not work against it.”
Read more about how the Whitman School is helping to prepare students for sustainability in business.