It’s been over 10 years since Bullfrog Power was founded and I joined the team working to transform the electricity landscape in Canada. At that time, ethical consumerism was still in its infancy, written off by some as a niche market for environmental extremists. Our critics told us that getting businesses to pay to support renewable energy was impossible. But today, we have more than 1,500 corporate partners—ranging from big to small—that have committed to making a difference in the future of renewables in Canada.

Over the years, we have seen more businesses align their brand with “being green.” But, what was once a loose definition has changed. It is no longer acceptable to claim environmental responsibility without proof to back it up—today, we live in the age of the ethical consumer.

The good news: real opportunities exist for brands to leverage this rise of ethical consumerism

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. According to a poll conducted by Environics Research, 85% of Canadians are more likely to buy products from a company reducing its environmental impact through purchasing green energy. And another poll indicates that 79% of Canadians say they are likely to make more environmentally responsible choices in 2017.

However, there are risks. Ethical consumers have high expectations and are looking for brands to be leaders in the environmental space. Consumers in this segment will not accept minimum effort and are more likely to openly criticize brands who are not meeting their standards. This is especially the case for values-driven Millennials who use technology to engage the public and impact brands. Integrating sustainability measures requires strategic planning in order to appeal to this growing consumer base and mitigate potentially negative reactions.

Here are my tips for marketers to keep in mind when working to successfully engage the ethical consumer:

Be authentic

Authenticity is the foundation of ethical consumerism. It’s no secret that authenticity is essential for building trust and contributing to consumer retention and acquisition; however, according to GlobeScan’s latest research, trust in corporations is the lowest it’s been in years. To stay true to a brand, a business has to stretch beyond marketing claims and actually incorporate environmental efforts in the overall business strategy. A great example is Alto Rentals, a unique Toronto rental apartment property, completed last year and tailored for residents seeking a healthier lifestyle. Translation: Toronto’s first non-smoking rental apartment building pending LEED certification, with complimentary on-site bike sharing and car sharing available for residents, as well as a one-year complimentary membership to Bullfrog Power provided to all initial residents.

You can leverage marketing materials to share your environmental efforts with your customers. You can authentically connect with their interests by creating assets for sub-sets of customers. Make your communications relevant by identifying the topics that interest them or focusing on the communities they live in. Here are a few of the ways we have tailored our communications:

  • Direct mail campaigns (residential and commercial) targeting key areas, primarily in Toronto, with messaging driving to online landing pages;
  • Localized email communications that invite customers to local events and share updates about local projects;
  • Targeted social posts depending on location and interests; and
  • Customized marketing resources for businesses.

Be transparent

Gone are the days when companies could simply state what they are doing. Now, walking the talk is an expectation, not an option. Companies need to provide context and proof about their commitments. When applicable, third-party validation is also a useful tool. For example, Granville Island Brewing in Vancouver carries Bullfrog Power logos on their packaging to demonstrate that they have chosen 100% green electricity and 100% green natural gas for their operations.

Unilever is the gold standard in this regard and their Unilever Sustainable Living Plan clearly identifies goals and ambitious stretch targets such as:

  • Improving health and well-being: By 2020, help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and hygiene;
  • Reducing environmental impact: By 2030, halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products as their business grows; and
  • Enhancing livelihoods: By 2020, enhance the livelihoods of millions of people as the business grows.

Strong communications materials, including direct marketing collateral, provide the opportunity to share successes. Unilever issues an annual report that tracks their journey towards these goals. Bullfrog communicates with our customers in many ways including our social media accounts, email newsletter (eBuzz) and print newsletter (The Bullfrog Buzz).

Transparency also requires honesty. Sharing milestones is important but so is recognizing and communicating where there is still room for progress. Being transparent about your company’s successes and shortcomings is the best way to ensure that your goals remain understood over time. Anticipating critics through transparent acknowledgement of the work your organization still needs to accomplish builds trust with your consumers and stakeholders. And with regular reports on your progress against goals, you can ensure that your messaging is consistent but evolving positively toward a defined destination over the long term.

Be consistent

As marketers, we understand the importance of consistent messaging; however, for ethical consumers, it goes beyond words and takes aim at consistent commitments. This savvy segment looks for businesses who address the long-term nature of sustainability with lasting investments and legacy programs. In fact, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is much more than its name suggests, actually representing an overall long-term corporate strategy. Plus, ethical consumers are looking for whether your environmental commitments align with other areas of your business. For instance, if your business relies heavily on transportation, this should be addressed with commitments in this area.

Lastly, a tip that can be easily overlooked:

Be realistic

It’s important to remember that sustainability isn’t a one-size fits all proposition. Leadership in this arena can be interpreted in many ways. Focus on what makes the most sense for your business; this can mean being a trailblazer in your industry or leading your community. For instance, in an effort to provide a model for other businesses to reduce the full impact of their energy use and play an active role in building sustainable cities, TD Bank Group recently addressed 100% of their energy footprint for its Vancouver branches and a portion of its business-related travel in Vancouver with a first-of-a-kind green energy solution through Bullfrog Power. The hope is that other businesses, regardless of size or scope, can look to this model to inspire their own actions in support of the transition to a low-carbon economy.

With the mainstreaming of climate change and environmental concerns, the ethical consumer is here to stay. According to Havas Worldwide’s Project Superbrand study, 75% of consumers believe that it is important for a company to express a vision of a better world. Transparency, sustainability and a purpose beyond profit are now default expectations for how businesses and brands are presumed to operate. Businesses have an integral role to play in the transition to this new economy. I encourage you to embrace the sustainability challenge and identify ways to integrate commitments into your business strategy. As marketers, we know that evolving with the needs of our customers is critical to long-term success.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Direct Marketing.

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Josephine Coombe

Josephine Coombe joined Bullfrog Power in 2005 and helped launch the company, build the brand and grow its presence coast to coast. As senior vice president, sales and marketing, she leads the company's commercial sales, working with global and Canadian business leaders on developing optimal sustainability strategies for their organizations.