Leading or Misleading in product communications: Know the sustainability and health context of your product

This blog is part of the blog series ‘Leading or Misleading’ on transparent product communications around sustainability and health. Read its intro here.

Say you have a product of which you would like to make consumers more aware of. You believe it offers sustainable and / or health benefits of which the consumer might not be aware. How to translate this aspect of your product? It all starts with knowing the aisle in which your product is positioned, and the role it takes – or is about to take – into and after a consumer’s life.

Ask questions about your own product
As a producer it’s important to understand the product (category) you are putting into the market. It’s always good to ask a lot of questions about your product.  What place is it going to take? Does it provide an alternative, or is it something completely new? What is it’s added value? How will it be transported or packaged? How and where will it be bought? How will it be thrown away?

Think about your product’s (potential) dilemma’s
Mistakes are made when you limit what information is accessible: e.g., biological food products can be said to be more sustainable because it refused chemical use, but as animals are more likely to grace outside it also increases methane pollution. The same can be said about avoiding plastic packaging in food products: if you avoid, you might also increase the risk of food waste. It is important to understand these complexities before you communicate them to the consumers. Plus, in reaching your products sustainability or health benefits you are highly reliant use phase of a product and the behavior of the consumer. For instance, it is also up to you to make sure the consumer recycles a product in the end or choses a product that fits their nutritious need. As an example: A US survey showed that of 86% of people that took vitamins or supplements, only 21% had the nutritional deficiency for that vitamin.

Doing product communications wrong
With single use plastics being increasingly banned across the world. McDonald’s switched to “eco-friendly” paper straws instead. It stopped using plastic straws, even though they were recyclable, in all its UK branches. The restaurant chain uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK, so the move to paper was a significant step in helping to reduce single-use plastic. Customers were unhappy with the new straws, saying they dissolved before a drink could be finished. As a result, McDonald’s strengthened their paper straws. When implemented, the company discovered that the new paper straws ended up being too thick to be processed by their recycling partners. Now, petition has been initiated to bring back recyclable plastic straws at McDonald’s. It gained more than 50.000 signatures.

Doing product communications right
Placing your product in context can feel unnatural as it can result in you showcasing a negative impact of your product. You might have doubts if that’s what you want to promote. Tony’s Chocolonely did it anyway; and they got rewarded for their transparency. Tony’s Chocolonely is known as a brand that makes an impact. Which is easily leveraged by consumers to justify their over-consumption of a chocolate that still includes a lot of sugar. Tony’s admitted that they were part of the sugar problem that the world faces. They encourage the consumer to educate themselves, and not eat too much sugar. Additionally, they stated that they support the sugar tax beyond sugary drinks, and that they were going to adapt their labels and running campaigns to help their consumer make healthier choices. This was highly appreciated by many of their consumers. Looking at their LinkedIn posts, this post had a response of 15.5k likes, where the average post of Tony receives 200 likes. It seems like consumers like to hear the truth.

The truth of your product

It’s important that you translate to the consumer this context into which your product does or does not provide a sustainable or healthy alternative. With less room for misinterpretation. When you recognize the truth of your product, you can translate it to your customers. This way, you are leading, and not misleading. In our next blog we will talk more about how to avoid being a misleader by considering consumer perception

Know your product’s context - a checklist

  • I am aware of the wider problems and challenges around my product.
  • I understand the ways it does, and the ways it does not, provide a sustainable or healthy alternative.
  • My product has clear values and takes a stand on the issues.
  • I provide context to my claims so that they can’t be misinterpreted.
  • The entire story of my product (the good and bad) is clear and is ready to be shared.

This blog series is written by Romée Lasschuijt, Communication & Strategy Trainee and consumer behavior expert at The Terrace, and Eva Schouten, Sustainability Consultant and supply chain transparency expert at The Terrace.

Leading or Misleading: A blog series on being transparent in your product communications around sustainability and health.

Today is World Consumer Rights Day. A day for raising global awareness about consumer rights and needs. With an increasing request for sustainable products, consumers have the right to know where it comes from, under which conditions its produces and what the products (health) benefits really are.


The more conscious consumer

The consumer of today is actively trying to understand what they are buying, where it comes from, and under what conditions it is made. Data from Unilever shows that 64% of consumers pay more attention to the environmental impacts of what they consume since the pandemic. Likewise, searches for sustainable brands are up 40% on Google, and more than half of the growth in consumer-packaged goods is driven by sustainably marketed products, showcased by data of Unilever. Not only are consumers concerned by the impact of their purchasing decisions on the environment, they also want to know how this product relates to their own health. Rabobank’s research shows that 95% of Dutch people claim to specifically consider the health effects of the food that they buy.


Many sustainability and health claims

With this increase in demand, consumer wants brands to help them choose the right product and fittingly, transparency dominates the demand in 2022. However, in practice understanding the sustainability and health aspects of a product can still be confusing and too complex for consumers to make the right choices. Even for an informed person in the aisle, it is hard to understand all the information that they receive. This is not a surprise, as there are at least 455 sustainability certifications and labels in the world (a tip if you want to explore them ecolabelindex and standardsmap). All with similar iconography such as a tree, a green check, a leave, and words such as organic, bio, and eco. Despite their similarities, their representation differs. Next to understanding the logos, the packaging itself can confuse you, with additional visuals or claims that give the impression that a product is sustainable or healthy. Sadly, it is said that 40% of the claims are not even based on facts, according to an investigation of the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) in 2021.


Increased regulation

To prevent this, there is a demand for claims to be regularly checked and regulated. Those which are vague, and ambiguous are now being expected to provide clarity. The ACM (Authority Consumer & Market) in the Netherlands is for instance doing extensive research into the brands of big industries including clothes, energy, and dairy.  In a fast pace, companies are required to take further action on providing supporting evidence to the sustainability claims they are making. Making substantiated claims is also as part of the European Green deal. The time of ‘everything goes’ is ending. Maybe you, as a professional in the sustainability space, are confused on what you can and can’t do in terms of communicating towards consumers about a products’ sustainability or health benefits. This blog series is meant to help you articulate your product’s true story. Benefiting you, the consumer, and the world. You will see that the right form of transparency grows the demand for your product, and that by being honest (even when you are not the most sustainable or healthy product) you will gain consumer trust. Reading these blog series can be a very good first step to make sure that you are a leader, and not a misleader when it comes to driving everyday choices of your consumers around sustainable and healthy behaviors. And these behaviors could have an enormous impact on society and the environment.


A blog series on product sustainability & health

At The Terrace, we support businesses in sustainability strategy, implementation, and communications by looking at three levels:

  • Purpose – integrating and communicating purpose-led mission at the center of an organization
  • Practice – building and communicating a strategy with sustainability (or healthy) focused activities and upkeeping performance
  • Product – providing guidance and proof impact towards consumers on what they are buying

In this blog series we specifically focus on sustainability and health marketing at the product level. We take you through 3 steps with which you as a product, ingredient or category owner can help consumers make more informed sustainable and healthy product choices, in a leading way:

  1. Know the sustainability and health context of your product
  2. Understand your consumer's way of thinking
  3. Communicate clearly and transparently

Find the first blog ‘Know the sustainability and health context of your product’ here.

This blog series is written by Romée Lasschuijt, Communication & Strategy Trainee and consumer behavior expert at The Terrace, and Eva Schouten, Sustainability Consultant and supply chain transparency expert at The Terrace.

Earth day: 5 ways to make your business work for nature

Let’s do earth-centered business. Earth-day is the day to celebrate the beautiful things our planet has to offer, but also a day to demonstrate support for environmental protection. Yesterday we already announced our new CEO at The Terrace: mother nature. In our work, and in our support to our clients, we always try to think of the planet as a stakeholder.  And with planetary resources under stress, and 10 years left to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, there’s quite some work to do. At the same time, there are companies, big and small, that have the ability to not be a force of stress, but a force of good for nature and our planet at large. Here's a list of 5 ways to not focus on the ‘less bad’ but on the ‘more good’ for our earth.

1. Get ready to regenerate

Is your business model earth-positive? Sustainability has too long been about doing less harm, or reaching net zero, whilst companies have the ability to do much more. It is clear for everyone, including consumers, that reducing negative effects are no longer enough. According to a study by ReGenFriends nearly 80% US consumers prefer “regenerative” brands to “sustainable” brands as they find the term “sustainable” too passive. And we agree. The current state of the world needs companies that restore the health of individuals, communities and the planet.

A good example here is Interface, the world’s leading modular carpet manufacturer. As part of their Climate Take Back mission, whose goal is to reverse global warming, Interface piloted the “Factory as a Forest” initiative. Their production plant gives back to the ecosystem more than it takes —such as clean air and energy, potable water, carbon sequestration, and nutrient cycling. Next to that, Interface launched the world’s first carbon-negative carpet tiles, which sequester more carbon—from raw material extraction through manufacturing—without using offsets. Transforming your business model regenerative is not something that will happen overnight, but much more is possible than you might think.

2. Make global goals local business

Planetary challenges such as climate change are global challenges that require local solutions. Take big worldwide roadmaps, such as the SDGs, and use them as a framework of action across all your business operations. Tools such as the SDG Action manager developed by B Lab  and the SDG toolbox by the UN Global Compact can give you a good sense on how you can drive change.

Natura & Co, the group behind Avon, Natura, The Body Shop and Aesop, is a good example of a company that internalized the SDGs and brought it to the heart of different company and brand strategies. The company is not only prioritizing sustainability objectives and SDG’s, but it has also defined clear indicators to measure and track it’s progress.

3. Stay transparent

A good way to keep your focus and hold yourself – as a business – accountable is by adopting a common, standardized sustainability framework to track and disclose your progress. Applying common frameworks, such as s B Corp Certification, also helps you to better work together with partners such as peers, governments and NGOs.

An example of a company providing transparent insights is fashion and clothing company Reformation. The company publishes all environmental and social impact of its products in all communications and detailed information on their sourcing and supply chain. Another example is Buffer, a social media management software startu that takes financial transparency to the next level by publishing the salaries of all employees, complete with factors like local cost of living and prior experience. Buffer also keeps a public tracker of its own diversity numbers and actively encourages suppliers to follow transparency guidelines.

4. Build a movement

Companies are big influencers and play an important role in people’s daily life, such as for consumers or employees. A company can become a good ‘ally’ for the planet when it raises its voice, leverages awareness, and gets people to take action. Another key area for businesses here is the supply chain. Companies can drive significant impact by advocating and collaborating with suppliers to go further together.

For Ben & Jerry's activism and marketing on climate action and racial justice has been the brand's modus operandi for years. The company has been calling upon consumers, employees and leaders of developed nations to take action for climate change. Ben & Jerry’s also is one of the most prominent brands to speak out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement encouraging people to tackle systemic and institutionalised racism. Next to brand activism, the company worked closely together with suppliers such as Sustainable Harvest, Rhino Foods and Greyston Bakery on social and environmental ambitions.

5. Roll up your sleeves

Achieving earth’s sustainability is complex and overwhelming. What businesses have to add, is the creativity and capacity to move fast and get into gear. Of course companies need to start with integrating sustainability goals at the heart of their business strategy, but beyond that, there are many playful and interactive ways that companies can lead activations. And small actions can make a big difference.

Patagonia has been striving to be an environmentally friendly business for more than twenty years. One percent of their revenue goes to environmental organisations. Additionally, the company organizes workshops where consumers learn how to repair their own clothing and belongings. Similar to Patagonia, Fairphone enables consumers to organize their own Urban mining workshop, extracting valuable minerals from old mobile phones. 

Are you inspired to take earth-positive actions? Or have additional ideas other businesses should know about? Let us know!

What the Oatly-controversy teaches us about the demand for transparency

What the Oatly-controversy teaches us about the demand for transparency

The Oatly-controversy

You probably heard already, Oatly has made the decision to sell a stake in the company to a consortium that includes Blackstone, a powerful private equity firm headed by Trump donor Stephen Schwartzman. Blackstone, in its turn, is allegedly investing in projects that link to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. This hit me quite hard, as I am actually a great Oatly enthusiast myself. Oatly was the first plant-based alternative that has made me ditch milk. And just like every first relationship, it holds a unique place my heart. And I can't disagree with Oatly choosing Blackstone as an investor to be controversial, but, from a consumer point of view, I do not think that it is just this partnership that is making Oatly fans to call out to 'cancel’ the brand. I believe this comes from the consumer demand for radical transparency.

Transparency of investment matters too

Of course, similar to the Unilever buying Ben & Jerry’s and The Vegetarian Butcher and Alpro joining Danone, these shifts make people uneasy. This comes along when sustainable brands move from niche to mainstream. There are definitely more ethical investors I wish Oatly had chosen for, but it can be true that in this case these lacked the punching power that Blackstone has and Oatly needs. But consumers are interested in (read also: critical of) how these mainstream investors are willing to change their portfolios and position themselves as ‘a force for good’. In this regard, I disagree with the words of Nick Cooney, Managing Director of Lever VC quoted in Justfood.nl: ‘Who a food company receives investment from is not one of the things that consumers seem to care about.’. I think the case of Oatly proves that actually, consumers care. According to several brand studies, over 90 percent of consumers say transparency by a brand is important to their purchase decisions. Financial transparency is just as much part of this as the traceability of key ingredients. Consumers want to know how the profit of Oatly – which comes from their purchases - is reinvested responsibly.

Transparency means owning up to mistakes

I believe that Oatly has underestimated the expectations for radical transparency by consumers, especially coming from their key audience: sustainability minded people that try to shop consciously. After all, Oatly itself actively advocates for consumers to think critically about the dairy industry and to expect transparency. In big letters on their packaging it says: ‘Hey, food industry show us your numbers’. The lack of communications up front and the lack of clarity on the agreements between Oatly and Blackstone is why Oatly’s biggest fans now start to doubt the brand. It also does not help that as the critique explodes online, the tone of the company strikes many as too defensive and seems to blame the critical consumer as ‘unable to see the bigger picture’. See below a snapshot into the discussions.

From the bad to the promising

So, did I lose my belief in first love Oatly? Well, no. In our work at The Terrace we believe successful positioning of a company’s sustainability is all about covering ’the good’, ’the bad’ and ’the promising’. Oatly so far been an example of a brand that shows what’s not going well; their 2018 sustainability report stated on the front cover: ‘Slightly worse than last year’ for instance. I don’t think that 'canceling’ the brand will help in any way. I see the current discussion as part of a positive development where consumers ask questions and hold corporations accountable for their actions. And whilst I will open up my monogamous relationship status with Oatly, I hope that the brand will learn from it, comes back with more transparency on their financial decision-making and then keeps making waves in their industry. In other words: Hey Oatly show us your numbers!

I am curious what you think though: are you still on board the Oatly revolution? And do you believe the investor-relation itself or the lack of transparency is an issue? Show me your opinion about this article by sending me an email.