Panel: Brands must get over "perfection paralysis" to tackle consumer scepticism on sustainability

Nine event and latest research into consumer views on sustainability paint a disconnected vision between wanting immediate action and brands making longer-term changes in the name of environment, social good

Brands need to get over “perfection paralysis” and just start getting on with the job of addressing sustainability if they want to rise up and meet the expectations of their consumers.

That was the overwhelming message from an industry panel speaking during today’s Powered by Nine State of the Nation Sustainability virtual event. The event detailed new consumer research conducted by the media giant around how Australians now value and understand sustainability, as well as the role industry and brands need and are striving to play.

For TBWA Group CEO Melbourne and Adelaide, Kimberlee Wells, one of the biggest challenges organisations face trying to address sustainability is feeling like they have to get all their ducks in a row first before they can talk about it.

“Their own fear of getting it wrong is holding many organisations back from stepping out and doing something – we call that perfection paralysis,” Wells said. “Unless everything is right, there are lot of brands reluctant to speak publicly [about sustainability] because the backlash is real and can have a more significant impact on reputation.

“But a brand is what a brand does. We have to park advertising to the side - it’s one vehicle with which brands tell their story. The way a brand shows up, day in and out, is critically important.”

While Wells praised brands writing separate sustainability reports, she argued these are not translating outside of shareholders and to customers. Consumer research, including Nine’s latest tranche, continues to show Australians are sceptical about how governments and companies are pushing the sustainability envelope even as they look at businesses to lead the way. And importantly, even as organisations internally take steps towards making changes.  

“When you get to the last three feet in a retail environment or the moment of truth for purchase, the ultimate vote is with consumers. They will decide, and that’s where sustainability has to become a commercial imperative,” Wells said. “If we’re only going to put our money towards businesses that represent our values, that we believe are there to do good for the platform and people, and we don’t know those stories, how do we make that vote?  

“You only need to walk down the supermarket aisle to see it’s jam-packed with brands doing great work. But you wouldn’t know.”

Climate Council research director, Simon Bradshaw, also sees perfection paralysis across organisations on a day-to-day basis as many “wait for the perfect moment to transition to a more sustainable future”.

“But it’s more about taking individual and small steps to get to the longer-term outcome,” he argued. “As an individual looking at the climate crisis scenario, it’s too hard for us singularly to resolve that issue. But what can we do as individuals that makes it a smarter choice today and tomorrow?

“If we can switch our mindset to moving beyond everything has to be perfect before we’ll commit or change, that would be a very big outcome for consumers, corporates and governments. Let’s just get on with it.”

Telstra CMO, Jeremy Nicholas, who is sponsoring several of the ASX-listed telco’s sustainability tangible sustainability efforts including its transition to plastic-free products and packaging, said there is an economic imperative to becoming more sustainable as an organisation.

For example, as the eleventh biggest user of energy in the country, reducing Telstra’s power bill is good business because it both reduces cost by tens of millions as well as ensures a more efficient organisation. Similarly, making all packaging sustainable and taking out all plastics results in a 59 per cent cost reduction on product lines and packaging costs.

On top of this, sustainability is being considered by Telstra in terms of social imperative.  

“Our purpose is to create a sustainable future and country where all Australians can thrive. That’s a really important concept,” Nicholas said. “This [environmental and social sustainability] is one of the biggest things confronting society, so we have to sort this out. If we are going to fulfil our purpose, these things have to be sorted out.”

In this vein, Telstra has been public about targets and practical changes through its T22 strategy and more recently, T25 business strategy, as well as plans to cut emissions by 50 per cent by 2030. Markers along the way include a commitment to recycling 500,000 devices per year.

“We are also launching an energy business with sustainability at its heart. All of these elements need to meet targets and we need to be aggressive on that,” Nicholas said. “All aspects of this are important. It’s not about marketing, but the business strategy.”  

Yet while many consumers want to see immediate action and it is happening, Nicholas said achieving sustainability by necessity is a longer-term plan. As a result, he was sympathetic to not communicating too early as a brand.  

“You have to have the entire supply chain worked out, stores ready, the back-end logistics to get it done,” he said. “While I agree somewhat with the idea of perfection paralysis, I am also of a mind that the worst thing you can do is go advertise when it’s not true, or you’re fudging it or faking it until you make it.

“I’m confident in what we are doing because it’s absolutely true. All our actions are true.”  

Partnerships are another crucial element in achieving sustainability. For Telstra, that includes working with its supply chain and getting its own supplier to commit to the same targets it has set as an organisation. If not, this could lead Telstra to choose a different supplier, Nicholas said.

“Media supply chain is another great question for the advertising industry and whether they will participate as well. There are some great opportunities there,” he added.   

As a new entrant in the electric vehicles space, EVDirect can arguably hit the ground running with its sustainability positioning. Its CEO, Luke Todd, said things the average householder wants to know about is how much an electric car will cost and the weekly budget.

“In general, people are interested in things that have more direct impact in terms of decision making,” he commented. “We need to stop thinking about five to 10-year plans, we have to act now.

“I hear a lot of talk about why and how, targets in 2030 and 2050. But the reality is consumers and households are making the choice now to switch to electric vehicles because they’re not only more effective for the environment but it’s economical.

“We are talking about a like-for-like comparison of vehicles where we make $19,000 in savings across an eight-year period of owning the vehicle. It’s about what really matters to mums and dads right now which is sustainability holistically – economics and environment all combined.”  

According to Todd, it’s also the responsibility of corporates to deliver product and drive action, rather than rely on government to make sustainable changes happen. Yet against this, Nicholas and Wells both agreed making sustainable changes is a slower burn and “grinding path” and will take a while.

“What gives me heart is a lot of companies and new businesses emerging, more electric vehicles, pushing different points of view, consumer research and aggressiveness of targets, plus practice steps being taken,” Nicholas said. “I do feel corporate Australia is in front of some governments… business will continue to lead the way as that’s where change will happen the most.”

And while we are clearly living through a moment in time where interest in sustainability and action is fever-pitched, Wells saw longer-term actions only fuelling further appetite to create more moments. The key here is to work collaboratively to get there

“It’s a complex problem, so there is no overnight solve or individual within the business spectrum, be it government, NGO, business that can solve it. We have to all join up,” Wells added.  

Nine’s sustainability state of the nation

According to Powered by Nine’s new State of the Nation research into sustainability, conducted by partnership with Crowd.DNA, four main principles can help organisations meet Australian consumer expectations around sustainability. These are showing humanity; providing transparency; demonstrating accountability; and displaying integrity.

Worryingly, 35 per cent of Australians surveyed couldn’t name a brand actively pursuing sustainable practices, and only 15 per cent agree corporates are taking a stand on protecting the environment.

Across key areas of sustainability, tackling climate change was the number one item on the consumer’s to-do list, and three in four say climate change is important to them personally. In addition, 74 per cent said the benefits of taking further action on climate change will outweigh the costs.

Half of respondents actively now seek ways to be sustainable in their day-to-day lives through the products they buy and brands they support, while 97 per cent said it’s important to purchase products with low impact on the environment. And 98 per cent agree businesses can reduce packaging and introduce new sustainable technologies.

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