There’s something new happening in sustainability. It’s honesty.

The truth is we’ve all seen misleading sustainability claims, but all of that is starting to change. “Brutal honesty is the new look in sustainability” says Vogue Business, and all kinds of brands are starting to talk openly about where they’ve missed the mark.

Everyone from Reformation, to Patagonia, to Verbal+Visual client United By Blue seems to be openly sharing the skeletons in their eco-conscious closets.

Some sustainability roadblocks from United by Blue’s 2021 Impact Report

So why are brands being so honest about their sustainability shortcomings? And how can your brand use transparent sustainability messaging to build consumer confidence, increase sales, and ultimately change the world?

It’s all about trust.

Honesty Builds Trust

A lot has changed since this logo was designed in 1970.

Sustainable messaging isn’t as simple as “reduce-reuse-recycle” any more. After all, consumers have been misled before so businesses are finding that they have to meet consumer skepticism with brand honesty. Why honesty? Faith Robinson, co-founder of the ethics consultancy Cogdis, thinks that it may have something to do with the humanisation of brands.

While humanizing brands has deepened brand/customer connection, it’s also raised consumer expectations for brand responsibility. Customers are well aware that, as Robinson puts it, “a brand isn’t one person, it has a huge impact on thousands of lives.” It would seem that, in consumer’s eyes, that huge impact means a huge responsibility to get sustainability right.

Another possible reason for this demand in truth-telling is the emergence of Gen Z.

Futerra, a sustainability focused marketing agency, manufacturer, and advocacy group, calls Zoomers “the honest generation,” pointing out how this demographic’s demand for truthfulness could be transforming expectations around sustainable messaging. Whatever the reason, smart brands have realized that they need to make their sustainability initiatives transparent if they hope to gain consumer trust. But eco-conscious honesty isn’t just another hoop to jump through, it can actually also help increase sales.

Honesty Can Be Lucrative

You read that correctly: honesty can boost the bottom line.

For example, a recent report by Label Insight (a company that collects and analyzes food label data), found that a whopping 94% of consumers would be more loyal to brands that practice transparency. Additionally 56% of consumers claim that brand transparency would make them "loyal for life."

In a way, this is old news:

Top sales professionals have known for years that honesty in selling is the most effective strategy for long-term success.

But does honesty work for sustainably-minded DTC brands? Last year, DTC eyewear star Ace & Tate shared a blog post entitled “Look, we f*cked up,” all about sustainability shortcomings. The post was full of less than attractive admissions about how they had recently celebrated a new manufacturing material that had seemed to be sustainable, but was actually reducing the recyclability of their glasses cases.

This seemingly self-damning post actually built customer loyalty. Today Ace and Tate is larger than ever, launching massive campaigns and reveling in praise from business and fashion publications world-wide.

Did Ace and Tate’s honesty really fuel their growth? Forbes would say so. Their article, “Honesty: the Best Policy for Business,” asserts that truth is the best asset in brand messaging. Or if you’re looking for additional radical-honesty reading, you could try Business of Fashion’s “When Mea Culpa Is the Best Marketing.”

Whatever you read, it’s clear that honesty is good for business. But it’s also good for sustainability itself.

Honesty Creates Real Change

When it comes to mission-driven business, there seems to be pressure from all sides to get sustainability perfect. But as enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” And that’s just as true for 18th century thinkers as it is for today’s DTC brands.

For example, when eco-conscious activewear brand Tala tried to compete with the low-prices of fast fashion, they ran into a problem:

As founder Grace Beverley puts it, “when we started, it quickly became apparent why everything was about £100 for a pair of sustainably-produced leggings. But we found that if we made leggings with 92% upcycled content rather than 100%, we could offer leggings for £42 whilst still maintaining ethical production practices.”

The idea here is that a sustainable solution that is 92% correct but accessible, is actually much more effective than a solution that’s 100% correct but not readily available.

This idea of effective imperfection is an exciting jumping-off point for planning your next sustainability initiative, but if you’re going to get buy-in from your customers then you’ll need to find a way to bring them into the conversation.

That’s where radical honesty comes into play, or as Grace Beverley continues, “you need transparency to explain those trade-offs because sustainability is nuanced and constantly evolving."

A commitment to telling the whole truth can build trust, increase sales, and get customers to engage with more sophisticated approaches to sustainability. So how do you mobilize this kind of transparency for your business?

How to Deploy Radical Honesty For Your Brand

You can ground your sustainability messaging in honesty with just two major principles:

1. Humble Claims 2. Keep The Receipts

Humble claims help with both consumer trust and company action. Your customers are going to be wary of broad, sweeping claims, so a more focused, grounded narrative about what you’re doing to improve your impact on the environment will be more likely to ring true.

Aiming for humble claims also helps you set up sustainability initiatives for real success. After all, a goal that you can actually achieve is going to help you make a bigger difference– and help you build internal buy-in for your next eco-conscious initiative (and the next initiative after that).

Keeping the receipts is just as important to building customer trust. You may be tempted to start publicly celebrating the success of your most recent sustainability program, but make sure that you have your evidence and strategy squared away before you do.

Consider partnering with an organization like Climate Neutral or B-Lab to help you measure your impact. This kind of measurement is vital for ensuring that your customers trust your initiative rather than just dismissing it as greenwashing.

Let’s Get To Work!

The Ultimate DTC Guide to Sustainability is a great place to start.

Sustainability requires accountability. And for accountability, honesty is key.

We shouldn’t be surprised then that radical-honesty has the potential to build consumer trust, bolster sales, and drive real change. After all, consider these words from Henning Ohlsson, Director of Sustainability for Epson Europe:

“I believe that, in the not too distant future, the only successful businesses will be those that make a positive environmental impact.”

So let’s get to work!

Want to jump-start your positive environmental impact? Download our guide to eco-conscious best practices: The Ultimate DTC Guide to Sustainability.

Recent Posts