New breed of environmentally conscious consumer is emerging

Many businesses are taking a leadership position taking on the challenges of climate change and environmental sustainability.
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Many businesses are taking a leadership position taking on the challenges of climate change and environmental sustainability.

There can be little doubt a new breed of socially and environmentally conscious consumer is emerging both locally and globally.

Concern about issues such as environmental sustainability and social responsibility are increasingly important criteria when a consumer chooses what to buy and who to buy from. Even if a business does not fully share those values, it has to respond. It has to address market demand.

Increasingly, businesses are not just acknowledging issues of environmental and social responsibility. 

Many are emerging as leaders, vigorously taking on the challenges of climate change, environmental sustainability and social inequality.

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"Real business leaders will show governments and individuals the way rather than fighting what is a natural consequence of a century of over‐exploitation and inequality," said one participant in the focus group research conducted to define the six major topics covered by this series.

That research showed such issues were right at the top of the business agenda in New Zealand. For many it was about doing the right thing, but executives were also keenly aware the benefits accruing to companies seen to be doing the right thing were many.

For example, being supportive of the causes customers care about deepens the bond between both and helps boost loyalty. It can also burnish brands and even make it easier to recruit top talent.

"Key stakeholders want to have their ethical values aligned with the businesses they choose to interact with," one business leader said.

That covered a broad swathe of responsibilities including looking after people, health and the environment.

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"Social responsibility and environmental sustainability go hand in hand for our company," said another.

The foundation of these efforts, however, remains business profitability.

"We try to balance social and environmental issues with the need to remain economically sustainable."

Some were endeavouring to embed this new approach to business deep in the fabric of their companies through culture and ethics.

"I think that for an organisation to prosper well and contribute to society and its own sustainability, it needs to start out with a strong and well defined ethical framework," one executive said.

"This framework is used to create the strategic plan and strategic thinking is key to this.

"The leader then behaves in accordance with the framework and strategic plan and 'walks the talk'."

Such an approach can mark a company or brand as one customers want to align themselves with – it is a "business worth dealing with".

Some felt they needed clearer markers not just about how they could grow ethically and sustainably, but how this new socially and environmentally conscious mass market wanted them to do it.

One business leader said better information on where the global economy would like prosperity to be sourced from would be valuable.

"Ideas that come to mind would be some form of benefit for people who create prosperity in the form of environmental sustainability to encourage the behaviour we want," they said.

An undercurrent of much of the research and roundtable discussions that helped produce this series was a desire to be able to truly reclaim New Zealand's clean, green image. That branding may always have been as much about marketing as reality, but many now want to make it real.

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