By Carter Roberts
May 2, 2014
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At Walmart’s Sustainable Product Expo 2014 this week, I witnessed a groundswell of companies working together to help create a more sustainable future. Forward-thinking companies and their leaders know that if business is going to succeed and flourish long into the future, sustainability has to move from niche to norm.

At WWF, we have been working for more than two decades to help businesses around the world embed sustainability into the very core of their operations and supply chains. We’re driven by a quest for change—a vision of a future in which people live in harmony with nature; one in which consumers don’t have a choice between sustainable and unsustainable products.

Growing Demand for Sustainability

As retailers and manufacturers, your relationship with consumers matters beyond what they purchase or the price point at which they buy it.

Consumers are demanding environmental and social accountability. They want to know that the products they buy are good for them, good for society, and good for the planet.

A recent Global Corporate Social Responsibility Study from Cone Communications and Echo Research found that 93% of global consumers want to see more of the products and services they use support social or environmental issues.

And when we look at Millennials—the rising consumer generation –this coveted demographic is ready to put their money where their mouth is.  According to Nielsen, 50% are willing to spend more on a product from a socially responsible company and 60% are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products.

It’s Time to Exceed, Not Simply Meet, Consumer Expectations

As a result of this increased consumer interest, David Jones, a leading thinker on these issues from Havas International, says that social media has taken corporate social responsibility from a reputational silo to a business imperative.

Consumers expect companies to play an integral role—to be a driving force—in solving the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. Corporations that ignore these expectations, do so at their own peril.  Nine-in-10 global consumers say they would boycott a company if they learned of irresponsible behavior.

Don’t just meet consumer expectations – exceed them. In order to do that, there are four specific things every business should be thinking about.

1.     Supply Chain

What’s the most basic thing you can do? Start with making a commitment to your supply chain.  Begin with sustainable sourcing of your product, water stewardship and emissions reduction throughout your operations. This is fairly simple to measure in the abstract but hard work in the details.

When Walmart committed to working with WWF and agreed they would only sell sustainably caught wild seafood, it sent ripples throughout the fishing industry. It led a number of fisheries to examine their practices, become certified, and they began to do more of the right thing.

2.     Four Walls  

Think about how you use the “four walls” of your company to educate the consumer. How can you do more than just present price points, or build end aisle displays? How can you actually educate consumers on the issues—moving beyond a marketing tagline and using your products to communicate your shared values?

3.     Community

How can you use social media to build a community and engage with your consumers to help solve problems?

4.      Open Source

Finally, I’d urge you to think about how you can make sustainability “open source” by collaborating with each other to change the way people think about their relationship with the natural world. We’re going to see more examples of companies collaborating on issues—engaging both one another and engaging consumers.

At the end of the day, the decisions Walmart and its suppliers make are hugely important to the places we care about and the species we cherish. The tigers, elephants and rhinos we work hard to protect around the world won’t survive unless we change the way we source food and other products.

You have a tremendous amount of influence to usher in a better future for people, nature and business. We have it within ourselves to change the way the market works—and that’s a powerful thing.