The environment
in dialogue with consumers

“The way companies communicate toward their customers is a key factor. It is the most influential force when it comes to changing people’s lifestyles, as family and school education tend to play a more traditional role, reproducing the system we already live in.”
Jean-Dominique Senard, Chairman of EpE, Chairman of Michelin

The way a company communicates to its consumers is crucial to its business activities, and is the subject of countless studies and innovations. Entire advertising departments are rising up to this challenge, as are customer service management teams, marketing departments and salespeople,
to name a few. So why should sustainable development departments also be contributing to this pool of expertise which is constantly being renewed?

The answer: because of the environment, of course.

However, consumers do not like others interfering with how they consume. They do not want to harm the environment but refuse to be forced to protect it – they have so many other priorities!
They therefore rely on companies to manage this topic for them – and if possible without disturbing them – by finding other ways to satisfy their consumer needs. Whether it is through new products, product quality or a product’s life cycle, everything can indeed be produced in a more or less
environment-friendly way.

In this context, communicating about the environment towards customers can often be difficult or even risky – what should be talked about, and how? Will sales increase as a result? What are the risks in doing so?

The difficulties are very real:

  • Environment has many sides and issues, and if a company raises one particular subject, it may also be asked about others: is a product that is good for the climate also good for biodiversity? Does it pollute more?
  • When it comes to the environment, everything is relative, and all those involved are making progress, so at what point can one claim to have an environmental advantage?
  • While the tone of consumer communications is generally positive, mentioning the poor state of the environment may in fact deter people from spending, instead of encouraging them, since such communications can appear to be sanctimonious or finger-pointing, and may therefore lead to rejection.
  • Talking about the environment is technically difficult if the aim is to be rigorous, since specific research is needed. It is also necessary to continuously adapt to the increased knowledge people have of the subject.
  • Above all, various studies, and the experience of many salespeople, show that environmental benefits are rarely decisive when it comes to buying something, for consumers mainly make their decisions based on other criteria, such as price, social, status, and the impact on their health. So why would companies try to overcome such difficulties if the end result doesn’t stimulate sales?

A key evolution is the level of knowledge and awareness the general public has about environmental issues, both of which are growing. Biodiversity erosion and climate change have become common subjects of conversation and concern. While some feel helpless in front of these global problems, many feel that companies could find solutions, and that it is up to them to resolve these issues.
There is therefore a growing societal expectation for companies to offer products with less of an environmental impact, and to provide solutions without consumers having to change their purchasing habits or their lifestyles too much.

For a company, talking about the environment to its customers can then become a way of meeting this expectation and can be beneficial, either because it reduces certain risks or because it leads to new opportunities. It is in any case a sign that the company is assuming its responsibility towards the environment. It is also necessary to approach it in a well-constructed way, with wellchosen tools and an appropriate tone, while meeting expectations that are often unformulated or contradictory, and aimed at audiences with varying levels of interest and receptiveness.

The purpose of this publication, which is based on the experiences of EpE members that have worked on these issues, is to provide some answers to the two questions of why we should communicate about the environment with consumers, and how we should do it.