The news that deep discounts offered by Volkswagen were enough to increase sales of their products despite the diesel emissions scandal was met with incredulity and dismay by many in the corporate responsibility and sustainability communications space. But the fact is, this is just the latest example of a larger failing - a failing by communicators to effectively understand the mindset and values of consumers.
As I pointed out several years ago, the question is whether or not consumers will be moved to change their purchasing behavior to favor or punish companies based on their sustainability efforts.
Remember the brouhaha over Chick-fil-A's religious-based decisions? Calls for boycotts resulted in a counter effort to encourage those who shared values with the organization to support it. In the end, the chain did not suffer, nor can it be concluded that it substantially gained, from its position. Similarly, BP sales saw no massive sustained dip after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill. If people are bothered by the working conditions in Apple supplier FoxConn's factories it has not demonstrably damaged sales of iPads and iPhones.
Why or why not?
For me there is no one single answer.
For some, the concept of 'not in my backyard' is obsolete in a global world; because they are aware (and worried about the fact) that, even on a massive global scale everyone's backyard is someone's front yard. For them the issues of child labor, working conditions, wages, environmental degradation, deforestation, and global climate change, etc. are enough reason to act.
Over the course of my career, I have developed five keys to unlock the full potential of a sustainability program. One of these keys is to focus on tangible results/impacts. The problems of melting polar ice caps seem far removed (in both distance and time) from the car dealership. Issues of child labor halfway around the world are hard for people to visualize when they are looking at a device that provides them so much convenience. People know that these things are happening but they are not motivated to act; often believing that their one small act does not matter or make a difference in the grand scheme of things. It comes down to helping people understand, as Henk Campher of Allison + Partners so bluntly states, people need to understand why they "should give a s--t?"
The challenge then is to focus on the multiple local impacts that are directly related to their purchasing decisions, and demonstrating to them - in ways that are credible, real and memorable - that their actions have a positive result on their own lives (win-win scenarios). And we must avoid being negative; so rather than point out that by purchasing a vehicle that emits more pollution they are choosing to save money over the quality of the air that they will be breathing today and tomorrow we must demonstrate the benefits of a cleaner vehicle include less air pollution, fewer 'smog' or 'ozone alert' days.
Rather than point out that relentlessly perusing the lowest price means companies must squeeze their supply chains to the point where lower wages - including in the store where they make their purchases - are a natural consequence we can focus on those stores that pay their employees more; contributing to the economic growth and strength of the community.