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Sustainable for the Long Term: 7 Ways to Stay True to Your Values—and Meet Customer Expectations

Illustration of a person opening a recycled box and symbols of nature are floating out

“There is a very small percentage of people and companies that hold enough wealth and power to make impactful, immediate change,” says Sam Romero, co-founder of ethical apparel brand Selva Negra. Yet, the planet’s fate is often delegated to the individual, downloaded onto the consumer. “It’s inherently backward,” she says.

Sustainability entered mainstream purview long ago, and the average person is reasonably aware of the effects of irresponsible consumption. But impact is intangible on an individual level—and the result is a disconnect between intention and follow-through.

We are more afraid of what we might lose short-term than we are of a seemingly distant threat.

While 49% of US buyers surveyed by Shopify said they would be willing to pay for sustainable shipping, that group was more likely to choose same-day or next-day shipping options. And overwhelmingly, they named cost as the largest factor in choosing a shipping option. Another study has uncovered the same cognitive dissonance—65% of those surveyed said they want to buy from sustainable brands. Yet only 26% reported actually doing so.

In short, your customers care about sustainability and ethical consumption, but once price or shipping times factor into buying decisions, those good intentions start to crumble.

The human brain is wired for instant gratification. Without perceived immediate risk or obvious consequences, we are less likely to take action. Although many around the world are directly affected by the consequences of climate change, for others, the personal day-to-day impacts are less obvious. We are more afraid of what we might lose short-term than we are of a seemingly distant threat.

Cityscape in the distance with greenery in the foreground

It is the responsibility of brands, says author and podcast host Toby Usnik, “to meet that individual where they are,” especially as the effects of climate change are compounded by the threat of a global pandemic. Businesses—even the small ones—are looked to as leaders in the communities they serve. How do you, as a brand, use your influence to affect change while also meeting your business goals? How do you strike the right balance between sustainable business practices and customer demands?

We consulted industry professionals and founders of ethical brands to help us investigate the incongruity between intention and action. With their expertise, we’ll explore ways in which brands can act as role models—and turn good-intentioned browsers into buyers.

Meet the experts

Shobha Philips
Founder, Proclaim
The founder of Proclaim poses with three models
Shobha Philips (second from right) developed inclusive nude intimates brand Proclaim. Marissa Alves/Proclaim

Shobha built her inclusive lingerie line on basics that represent a spectrum of nude shades. She knew that addressing inequality, however, would take more than a color palette. “The system of fashion put us in this position where we’re underrepresented in this field,” she says. “A lot of these products are made by exploiting women of color.” Proclaim bras and underwear are produced ethically in LA, paying workers fair hourly wages.

Kristen Gonzalez and Sam Romero
Co-founders, Selva Negra
The founders of Selva Negra work side by side at a table with garment production materials around them
Sam (left) and Kristen’s commitment to sustainability threads through the entire business from production to plastic-free compostable shipping materials. Selva Negra

Descended from immigrants themselves, Kristen and Sam were acutely aware of the fashion industry’s exploitation of immigrant garment workers—even in the US. “There is a misconception that if something is ‘Made in America,’ that it is automatically ethical,” says Sam. When building their apparel line Selva Negra, fair and respectful treatment of their “production family” was at the heart of the company’s values.

Toby Usnik
Author and podcast host, The Caring Economy

Toby works with organizations and individuals alike to “catalyze movement along the spectrum of caring to impact.” He is a speaker, consultant, coach, and philanthropist. Through his book, and podcast of the same name, The Caring Economy, he aims to spark conversation and share his decades of experience in the field of corporate social responsibility.

Josh Bowden
Co-founder, noissue

When Josh and business partner Augie launched their first startup, they struggled to find sustainable-packaging suppliers—so they sourced their own. Surprisingly, their retail partners were just as interested in the partners’ product packaging as in their product. From there, noissue was born. “We decided custom, sustainable packaging should be accessible to businesses of all sizes, even if you’re just starting out,” says Josh.

Not the easiest path—but the right one

In a 2019 study, Shopify interviewed 15 founders of sustainable brands who reported that the following were the greatest challenges when it comes to running their businesses:

  • Manufacturing and sourcing: finding suppliers, vetting manufacturers, and the high costs of production and materials
  • Educating customers on the value and impact of the product or brand
  • Shipping and packaging, including finding sustainable shipping partnerships

For Shobha, the limited selection of manufacturing partners and materials is a good problem. She knows what she’s working with from the get-go. But for those looking to shift to more sustainable business practices, the challenge may be much greater. “Reverse engineering sustainability is definitely harder,” she says. “You set your business model and your margins to unsustainable practices that you’re going to have to slowly phase out or find compromise.”

The challenges ultimately trickle down to the customer either through cost, production and shipping delays, or availability. There are many aspects beyond the control of sustainable brands, but those who communicate their story and mission effectively—and create value for their customer—can win in this growing space.

Small steps for sustainability

Black mailing envelope that reads "Hey! I'm a 100% compostable mailer" against a solid blue background
noissue’s founders launched in response to increasing interest in sustainable packaging among smaller brands. noissue

Although the gap between customer intention and action is real, it hasn’t stopped businesses from moving in the direction of sustainability. In a recent survey of business owners who use Shopify, 63% reported they employ at least one sustainable practice in their businesses. Sustainable or ethically sourced materials (25%) and biodegradable, recyclable, recycled, and/or reusable packaging (25%) were among the top reported. More businesses taking a stand increases collective awareness—making sustainable business practices the rule rather than the exception.

Our industry has to shift in unison to make sustainability accessible to everyone.

Sam Romero, Selva Negra

“Our industry has to shift in unison to make sustainability accessible to everyone,” says Sam. “We have a long way to go.” But these first steps are showing progress: market share of sustainably marketed products grew 5.6 times faster than conventionally -marketed products between 2013 and 2018. One study reported that US consumers spent $128.5 billion on sustainable goods in 2018 and that number is expected to reach 150 billion by 2021.

When we break buying attitudes and habits down by age demographic, The same study finds younger people are more likely to adapt their habits to reduce their footprint (75% among millennials versus 34% among boomers)—and they’re more willing to pay more for brands with social responsibility claims or products with sustainable ingredients.

7 ways to turn good intentions into action

A t-shirt becomes more than a t-shirt when its production can be traced from the hands that sewed it back to the raw material and hands that made it. And sustainable brands succeed when they can tell their story in a meaningful way for their customers. Ultimately, what compels your customer to act depends on their own values, needs, and motivations.

One cannot have a truly sustainable business without a demonstrated effort to also improve societal and planetary well-being.

Toby Usnik, The Caring Economy

1. Be authentic—and consistent

3 models stand together wearing many shades of nude undergarments
Proclaim’s ethical and sustainable business practices affect everything from manufacturing to shipping. Marissa Alves/Proclaim

If you expect your customers to walk the talk, you need to model responsible behavior in all aspects of your business. “One cannot have a truly sustainable business without a demonstrated effort to also improve societal and planetary well-being,” says Toby. Educate yourself first so you can confidently educate your customers in turn. “I’d challenge anyone to get curious about what sustainability means and how much of your pre-existing definition is limited or based on old-school thinking,” says Josh.

We’ve worked with third parties to do a formal audit of the factory to help keep us in line with the values we’re trying to promote.

Shobha Philips, Proclaim

Shobha is taking an extra step toward accountability. “We've worked with third parties to do a formal audit of the factory to help keep us in line with the values that we’re trying to promote,” she says. Whether you do your own investigation or hire an outside auditor, examine your claims of sustainable business practices and partnerships to be sure you’re walking the talk.

For Sam and Kristen, who built a brand with ethical production at its centre, it was important that the other aspects of the business aligned with their overall values. “Our packaging is 100% compostable,” says Sam. “We have come a long way from using recycled plastic to completely removing plastic from our shipping equation.”

💡 Tip: To extend your commitment to sustainability in the shipping process, download Shopify’s Offset app. Calculate shipping emissions and neutralize them with carbon offsets. You can monitor your impact through the app and share it with your customers.

2. Educate

Proclaim Instagram post featuring plastic water bottles against a pink background
Across multiple platforms, Proclaim educates customers on process, materials, and causes close to the brand’s heart. Proclaim/Instagram

Shobha built her brand from the start with sustainability and ethical values at the forefront of her messaging. Her Instagram account launched six months ahead of any actual product and it gave her time to build a community around her cause. Her customers buy from her because of these values, and she says she’s only had to explain her pricing a handful of times.

We have to have very open, vulnerable, and educational discussions with our audience about why these things matter beyond our business.

Sam Romero, Selva Negra

But if your product costs more than comparable items, especially in saturated markets like fashion, education should be built into marketing, product pages, and other customer touchpoints. “Sustainability is not the most accessible or inclusive conversation,” says Sam. “We have to have very open, vulnerable, and educational discussions with our audience about why these things matter beyond our business.”

A dedicated page that speaks to your brand’s commitment to sustainability can serve to educate customers on your process and materials. Noissue uses a blog to communicate the sustainable aspects of its products and its commitment to “championing our community of small businesses who’ve made the switch to sustainable packaging,” says Josh.

3. Find your customer’s “why”

Model poses on a chair wearing a Selva Negra dress
Selva Negra

What are the needs and motivations of your ideal customer? Your sustainability messaging may fall flat if it’s not landing with your specific audience. If you’re selling vegan meal kits or solar lighting, you’re already speaking to customers that are tuned in to the benefits of paying more for a sustainable product.

But consider other industries where green aspects might not be the top selling point. In a recent article, Harvard Business Review points to Tesla as an example: while the company’s electric vehicles certainly appeal to those looking to lighten their footprint, the brand attracts a wider audience with luxury features and marketing that focuses on innovation and design, rather than the environmental benefits.

4. Leverage social influence

Selva Negra Instagram post featuring a customer wearing the brand's products
Selva Negra/Instagram

Peer influence has a positive effect on sustainable shopping behaviors, say several studies. In one, community organizers who installed solar panels recruited 63% more neighbors to follow suit versus those who themselves did not install panels.

Leverage your most passionate brand advocates to grow your audience through referral incentives, explicitly asking for reviews (and posting them on your site), and social proof (sharing user-generated content that features your products).

5. Support good habit building

Reel toilet paper rolls sit on a shelf beside a bamboo plant
Reel offers its bamboo toilet paper on a subscription model, making the switch to sustainable more convenient for its customers. Reel

As humans, we largely resist change. And, if the countless self-help resources on the topic tell us anything, it’s that both breaking old habits and making new ones are extremely challenging for most.

How do you convince a customer to switch from conventional toilet paper, shipped same-day from Amazon, to your renewable bamboo toilet paper that’s more expensive and takes longer to arrive? Reel made it easy for customers to develop good habits by selling its toilet paper on a subscription model. It arrives regularly and conveniently at customers’ doorsteps, taking one barrier to change out of the equation.

Ease your customers into developing new, good habits with reminders that encourage them to keep it up. In the Shop App, users who make purchases from Shopify stores can track the trees that have been protected thanks to orders that qualify for carbon offsets.

6. Incentivize and reward

Close cropped shot of feet wearing blue socks and suede loafers
Swedish Stockings incentivizes customers to recycle old socks by offering a discount towards a new pair. Swedish Stockings

If you’re a parent, you know that the promise of dessert at the end of a meal is a powerful tool for getting children to eat vegetables. But most human adults are also wired this way. We are more willing to take risks, try something new, pay more, or put in extra effort if it’s offset by reward. Here, we’re talking about two types of rewards: tangible and emotional.

Swedish Stockings produces its socks and tights from post-consumer recycled nylon, and it depends on its customers to generate some of that raw material. While few may, out of the goodness of their hearts, make the effort to ship their old socks to the company, many more will do so if incentivized. Swedish Stockings offers a 10% discount on new products in exchange for recycled socks.

Emotional rewards can be achieved by creating a warm feeling in your customers when they perceive they have made a positive impact on the Earth, other people, or the safety and health of their family. Selva Negra uses brand storytelling to highlight its sewing staff on its website. Its customers can connect with the humans behind production whose lives have been positively impacted by their purchases thanks to the brand’s commitment to fair and respectful labor practices.

7. Listen, adapt, collaborate

Recycled packaging and custom tissue paper by noissue
noissue continues to evolve its priorities by staying in touch with its customers’ sustainable packaging needs. noissue

“Brands are now realizing more than ever that rather than educating the customers, they need to let the customers educate them,” says Toby. “To actually see and hear them, and to reflect them.” Create opportunities for your audience to deliver feedback and join the conversation about sustainability.

We try to get as much guidance from our customers as possible.

Josh Bowden, noissue

Selva Negra’s founders admit they are continually making improvements based on research, feedback, and conversations with other brands. For noissue, prioritisation remains a challenge, says Josh. “We try to get as much guidance from our customers as possible.”

Carefully research prospective partners, from manufacturers to suppliers to marketing agencies. And align with other brands or organizations that share your values. Established charity partners, for example, can lend credibility to your brand and build trust with customers.

Sustainability in a global pandemic

While the spread of COVID-19 impacted businesses of all sizes in different ways, it also presented a thin silver lining. “It became a chance for Mother Nature to exhale,” says Toby, “and for brands to reassess what they want versus what they truly need.” As priorities among consumers shift toward family, health, and safety during this time, sustainable brands have the opportunity to meet changing customer needs.

People have come to expect that they’re waiting longer for things.

Shobha Philips, Proclaim

Shobha introduced two of Proclaim’s latest products through a pre-order model in 2020. This allowed her to manufacture only what she needed and reduce waste. Customers who pre-ordered faced a 10- to 11-week wait time to receive their packages. Shobha says the pandemic has helped people embrace a slower lifestyle. “I think that it wouldn’t have been possible until all of this happened,” she says, “People have come to expect that they’re waiting longer for things.”

Acting for the long term

We all have the responsibility to minimize our impact through our choices. Collectively, businesses can move the needle on slowing climate change and impact consumer action. The playbook is already written, says Toby, and brands can look to those before them who have already made the commitment. “I encourage business leaders to simply put a stake in the ground,” he says.

At noissue, Josh says the team is expanding their definition of sustainability and baking it into all of their business decisions going forward. “Acting for the long term automatically sets you up to make decisions that result in a more sustainable business.”

Shopify spends at least $5 million annually on the most promising, impactful technologies and solutions to fight climate change globally. To learn more about our commitment to the environment and to sign up for updates, visit our sustainability page.

Feature illustration by Borja Bonaque