Marketing for Sustainability

Green Marketing Gets Real

The WHY, the WHAT and the HOW of Sustainability Communication at Point of Purchase

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Green Marketing Gets Real

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Industry Canada

Prepared by:
Stratos Inc.
1404-1 Nicholas Street
Ottawa, Ontario
K1N 7B7
Telephone: 613 241 1001
Fax: 613 241 4758

Green Marketing Gets Real is a practical tool prepared by Stratos Inc. with the support of Industry Canada, to help Canadian retailers and producers of consumer products better understand, plan for, and capitalize on sustainability communication at point of purchase (POP). Based on the results of a study that investigated the practices of seven leading companies, “Green Marketing Gets Real” provides practical advice and techniques to help companies determine the “Why”, the “What” and the “How” of sustainability communication.

Stratos Inc. is a leading Canadian sustainability consultancy based in Ottawa and Calgary.

This tool is divided into four sections:  Key Study Lessons and the WHY, the WHAT, and the HOW of sustainability communication at POP. The full study, including case studies on each participating company, can be downloaded at stratos.

Study Participants

Table of contents

1. Key Study Lessons

2. WHY Communicate About Sustainability at Point of Purchase

3. WHAT to Communicate About Sustainability at Point of Purchase

4. How to Communicate About Sustainability at Point of Purchase


Key Study Lessons

Sustainability Communication at POP is Growing and Maturing

The markets for sustainable products are seeing strong growth. Consumers are demanding more sustainable products and more information about these products in order to make informed purchasing decisions that are better for the environment, society and for their health. Leading companies are responding to this demand and evolving POP communication approaches as they test a range of methodologies, and standards and best practices emerge. Innovations in POP sustainability communication include:

  1. Putting performance before communication — Aveda, a US-based manufacturer and retailer of consumer products (beauty), ensures strong product performance in function, quality and sustainability before communicating these results to consumers.
  2. Linking product and sustainability performanceP&G, a US-based manufacturer and marketer of consumer products (personal care and household), developed Bounty “select-a-size” paper towels to reduce consumption by offering flexible sheet sizes. POP communication focuses on performance, rather than associated sustainability benefits.
  3. Simplifying sustainability communication at POP — Out of 100 corporate sustainability commitments (“Plan A”), M&S, a UK-based retailer of consumer products (apparel and food), only communicates about five at POP. Detailed information and progress reports on all 100 commitments are found on the program’s website.
  4. Engaging consumers to reduce impact — During an analysis to determine the total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions caused by the production, transport and use of its shampoos, Boots, a UK-based retailer of consumer products (health and beauty), identified use as the major contributor to lifecycle emissions. They have launched a POP campaign to encourage consumers to wash their hair at a lower temperature, thus reducing emissions.
  5. Assuring sustainability claims — Timberland, a US-based manufacturer, marketer and retailer of footwear and apparel, has made public the methodology for their “Green Index Label”. Scores are assessed by Timberland’s Environmental Development Team and the approach is validated using an internal audit team and stakeholder engagement.

Walmart Sustainability Index—An Innovation in POP Communication

Walmart has announced the development of a worldwide sustainable product index which will provide a “single source of data for evaluating the sustainability of products”. Sustainability information will be conveyed via a simple, consumer friendly and comparative rating scheme.

Did you know?

Prior to making a purchase, a typical consumer first recognizes a need or dissatisfaction, gathers information about products that might fill this need, and then evaluates their choices. Communicating with the consumer about sustainability might encourage a consumer to realize their dissatisfaction with less sustainable alternatives, or help a consumer make a choice between products with similar purposes.

Point of Purchase Communication Media

A wide range of media can be used in various combinations to communicate with consumers about sustainability at POP. Media used by study participants include: labeling, packaging, posters, displays, staff interactions, and catalogues.


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2. WHY Communicate About Sustainability at Point of Purchase

Leading companies are responding to consumer demands for sustainable products and for more information about these products. As they do so, they are recognizing the positive benefits associated with sustainability communication. They also recognize that for communication to be effectively delivered and corporate benefits maximized, business objectives for sustainability communication at POP must be set.

Study participants highlighted the following rationales for their sustainability communication at POP
Business Objective Study Example

Strengthening brand relevance and trust

By communicating its products’ sustainable attributes, Aveda, a US-based global manufacturer and retailer of consumer products (beauty), is able to enhance its brand image associated with natural and organic products.

Delivering on consumer expectations for sustainability performance

As a provider of pharmaceutical products, corporate trust is fundamental to Boots, a UK-based retailer of consumer products (health and beauty). Communication on sustainability efforts builds that trust.

Creating enduring relationships by engaging consumers in sustainable change.

When M&S, a UK-based retailer of consumer products (apparel and food), offered five pound coupons to consumers who recycled clothing with OXFAM, a non-profit organization who re-distributed the clothing to the needy, the redemption rate was significantly higher than when similar coupons were just mailed to consumers.

Providing clarity on sustainability attributes of products can differentiate from standard offerings

MEC, a Canadian retailer of apparel and sporting equipment, developed a sustainability logo to inform consumers of sustainable product attributes.

Increased interest in sustainable products can translate to growth in sales of products with clear sustainability characteristics

Canadian Tire, a consumer products retailer, reports that sales of its Blue Planet “environmentally preferred” product line are better than standard product lines.

Robust efforts to understand and communicate sustainability performance can reveal operational efficiencies

Boots, a UK-based retailer of consumer products (health and beauty), worked with Carbon Trust to assess the total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions caused by the production, transport and use (carbon footprint) of shampoos, revealing areas for operational improvements across similar products.

Communicating effectively on current social and environmental challenges helps keep a brand current and relevant

Aveda built a campaign promoting the sustainable use of water to complement society’s growing understanding and appreciation of our limited water resources.

Informing consumers about ways they can reduce a product’s environmental footprint can improve the overall sustainability performance of a value chain and help meet corporate objectives

P&G, a US-based manufacturer and marketer of consumer products (personal care and household), conducted a lifecycle analysis and found that use of laundry detergent has the greatest energy impact of all its products, and so created Tide Cold Water.

Canadian Tire logo for Environmental line

Case Study: Why Canadian Tire Communicates About Sustainability at POP

Over the past ten years, Canadian Tire, a consumer products retailer, has seen growing public and consumer interest in “environmentally preferred product options and considers both understanding and acting on this interest as critical for business success. Additionally, given the association of trust with the Canadian Tire brand, consumers expect the company to “do the right thing” and sustainability activities are pivotal in building long-term consumer relationships.  Active POP communication about sustainability reinforces this trust, meets consumer needs, and increases sales. In fact, the Blue Planet line is achieving sales growth that is greater than average when compared to other Canadian Tire product lines.


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3. WHAT to Communicate About Sustainability at Point of Purchase

Study participants agree on the importance of setting objectives for sustainability communication at POP. Study participants communicate to influence consumer choice (by providing information about product attributes or corporate operational performance), or to drive consumers to take action (by providing information on product lifecycle or global and community issues). They communicate on a range of sustainability issues, the most common of which include:

  • Climate change and energy: lifecycle energy consumption, product carbon footprint, energy savings in product use
  • Sourcing: ethical and environmental standards applied in sourcing related to human rights and fair trade
  • Chemicals: safety of content, natural materials, organic and excluded chemicals
  • Water: product water footprint, broader water quality and quantity issues

Making decisions about which issues to communicate is fundamental to sustainability communication at POP. Participant companies agree that such decisions should be connected to corporate brand, business strategy and business opportunities, and should not be viewed as a public relations exercise.

Participant companies determining which issues to communicate at POP.
Approach Description Study Example

Strategic Performance Areas

  • Aligns sustainability communication with corporate strategic performance areas and associated objectives (e.g. climate change, chemicals, resource consumption)
  • Secures executive / board buy-in

Timberland, a US-based manufacturer, marketer and retailer of footwear and apparel, focuses on strategic performance areas identified by a board committee and through external stakeholder engagement for POP sustainability communication.

Stakeholder Engagement

  • Aligns communication with stakeholder expectations
  • Interactive, allows for testing of messaging

Lifecycle Analysis

  • Maps environmental issues and impacts against value chain
  • Aligns communication with areas of greatest impact
  • Identifies areas in which consumer and producer action would be most valuable
  • Identifies baseline against which improvements can be communicated

M&S, a UK-based retailer of consumer products (apparel and food), used a lifecycle analysis to identify areas of greatest value chain impact and areas where consumers could take action.

Market Research

  • Aligns communication with market expectations
  • Provides detail by consumer segment / target markets

Canadian Tire, a consumer products retailer, used market research to identify carbon management as the area on which consumers were most interested in receiving information / taking action.

Issue Profile

  • Aligns communication with issues of high public awareness
  • Identifies areas where consumers want to take action, increasing consumer engagement and brand relevance

Aveda, a US-based global manufacturer and retailer of consumer products (beauty),  often links its communication messaging to areas in which consumers are likely to take action to (e.g. using renewable energy).

Timberland environmental label

Case Study: What Timberland Communicates About Sustainability at POP

Timberland, a US-based manufacturer, marketer and retailer of footwear and apparel, uses a “nutritional label” printed on product boxes to communicate about:

  • Impact on the climate (i.e. use of solar, wind, and water energy to power factories)
  • Percentage of footwear that uses alternatives to PVC plastic (leading source of persistent toxic pollutants)
  • Total use of renewable, organic and recycled materials
  • Number of trees planted by the company in a given year.

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4. How to Communicate About Sustainability at Point of Purchase

How to Communicate About Sustainability at Point of Purchase
While companies vary in their approach to communicating about sustainability, the elements presented in the checklist below are consistent across study participants.

Determine Communication Media
Study participants use different media to communicate sustainability information at POP. Some of the common approaches used include: labeling, packaging, posters, displays, staff interactions, and catalogues. All study participants used at least two of these media in their communication approach.

Develop the Message
Consumers are flooded with messages at the POP. For sustainability messages to be heard and understood there needs to be:

  • Clarity on one to five key messages
  • Simplicity of language and concepts
  • Real, rather than abstract concepts
  • Repetition of messaging
  • Concrete action points for consumers

Study participants consistently identified simplicity and tone of messaging as key to the success of POP sustainability communication. Consumers react adversely to a “preachy” or “finger-wagging” tone. Important aspects of tone include:

  • Humility
  • Transparency
  • Credibility
  • Commitment to future action
  • Solutions-orientation

The tone of sustainability messaging should also resonate with corporate brand, and be consistent with corporate strategy and sustainability performance targets.

Ensure Message Coherence
Important sustainability communication messages can be lost or diluted if not supported by a coherent, store-wide experience. Key considerations include:

  • Ensuring staff can speak with knowledge about the sustainability of different products
  • Ensuring that packaging is appropriately optimized and designed with sustainability in mind
  • Ensuring the approach to high visibility areas or items like catalogues, lighting, and displays are designed with sustainability in mind
  • Ensuring store-wide rigor in identifying impacts (e.g. if one item is labeled as being air freighted, label all air freighted items)
  • Maintaining coherence between communication channels including television, radio, print and web-based media.

Engage Consumers
The more consumers are engaged in sustainability initiatives, the greater the sustainability impact and corporate returns in terms of brand value and consumer retention. Look for opportunities to engage consumers directly in improving performance and create feedback loops to bring consumers back to products and stores.

Ensure Accuracy
Avoiding the promotion of false or misleading information is critical to ensuring credibility. Strictly apply guidance such as Canadian Standard Association’s (CSA) “Plus 14021 “Environmental Claims: A guide for industry and advertisers”Footnote 1 and “Environmental Product Declaration according to ISO 14025”Footnote 2. Also consider using internal and / or external experts and third party auditors to verify statements.

Study participants considered various levels of assurance including:

  • Data: Ensure the accuracy of the data being presented in sustainability claims (e.g. Aveda’s claim of being “the first beauty company manufacturing with 100% wind power”)
  • Language: Ensure that the language used in a claim is credible, objective, and easily identifiable and understood by consumers
  • Implications: Consider what is being inferred about the performance of other products

Examples of claims requiring justification:
Eco-friendly, Natural, Non-toxic, Green, Pollutant-free, Carbon-neutral, Ethical, Fair, Recyclable, Low-impact, v Environmentally-friendly, Energy efficient, Low carbon, Not tested on animals, Organic, Biodegradable, Zero carbon, Zero waste

Manage Performance
Communication on sustainability is most effective and credible when approached from a platform of strong operational and product sustainability performance. This ensures that a company does not engage in risky “green-washing”Footnote 3. Companies should define a sustainability action plan to identify and drive performance improvements and consider action around technical fixes, product sustainability improvements, supply chain partners and consumer impacts.

Study participants consider performance improvement as a pre-condition of communicating sustainability at POP. Examples of techniques to improve sustainability performance include:

  • Using lifecycle analysis to identify opportunities for operational efficiencies and product improvements
  • Involving supply chains to improve both operations and the sustainability of products
  • Driving consumers to products with improved sustainability attributes
  • Encouraging improved consumer use of products
  • Improving consumer practices regarding disposal and recovery of products at the end of their life
  • Understanding and monitoring the success of communication activities (e.g. through metrics like sales, greenhouse gas emission reductions, and consumer participation rates).

Case Study: HOW MEC Communicates About Sustainability at POP

  • MEC, a Canadian retailer of apparel and sporting equipment, applies a sustainability logo to products that contain organically grown cotton, recycled polyester, or are completely PVC-free.
  • Signage throughout retail space guides consumers on a tour highlighting sustainable design features (e.g. solar panels, environmentally preferable construction materials, etc).
  • MEC-brand products are packaged using low material volumes and recycled content whenever possible.
  • The MEC catalogue, (available in-store) delivers sustainability messages (e.g. a two-page spread called “The Power of Choice ”, highlights ways in which MEC and its consumers can make a positive impact on the environment).
power of choice sustainability logo
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