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What Constitutes a Sustainable Company in 2022?

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Disappearing glaciers. Increasingly sweltering summers. Anti-union rhetoric from massive corporations. With the rise of these types of issues in recent years, it’s no wonder the question of sustainability has become top of mind for many. But how does that translate to businesses?

A new survey from the Conference Board — an independent business membership and research association — looks at how people think about sustainability related to companies. The key finding: Although the concept seems to be something that shifts with public awareness, small businesses and large companies alike will have to prioritize their impact if they want to keep up with public demand.

What people want in sustainable products

The way people tend to think of sustainability seems to be in well-rounded terms. For instance, the five most common reasons people cite when deciding to buy sustainably are:

  • Fair prices
  • Fair labor conditions
  • Fair wages
  • Conservation of natural resources
  • Support for democracy, voting rights and free speech and press

But here’s the thing: Sustainability’s influence doesn’t impact everyone equally. Plus, opinions can vary greatly depending on demographics.

For example, more than 70% of Generation Zers (ages 18 to 24) say a company’s actions on climate change influence them to buy, while less than half of boomers+ (ages 57 and older) agree. This difference is even more pronounced across the political spectrum, with almost three-quarters of Democrats falling into this category, compared with less than 40% of Republicans.

Companies focused on sustainability will want to keep their target demographics in mind as they figure out how to present themselves through advertisements and products. This is especially true for small businesses just starting that have yet to build trust around these issues.

What it means to be a sustainable business in 2022

People tend to associate certain concepts with sustainable products. According to the survey, the most commonly cited concepts include:

  • Conservation of natural resources
  • Climate change
  • Fair prices
  • Alternative energy sources
  • Fair wages

But while these are useful guideposts, it’s also important to remember that those perceptions of sustainability change over time as we become more educated about different issues.

For example, while alternative energy sources were the primary concept people associated with sustainability in 2019, the focus has since shifted to climate change. Fair prices and labor conditions, as well as pollution, have also become more popular since 2019.

At least in part, that could be thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The health crisis helped to  highlight the need for fair labor practices as stories emerged about those who didn’t have the option to work from home taking on more risk while still being paid low wages. Many of these same workers — who had been hailed as pandemic heroes — also lost their jobs, which only made a bad situation worse.

But regardless of the reasons for the shifts in sustainability’s meaning to the average person, businesses will have to be open to feedback if they’re going to maintain a positive sustainability track record. And, more importantly, they’ll have to be adaptable if they’re going to avoid the sustainability missteps seen by certain larger companies in recent years.

Methodology: On behalf of the Conference Board, The Harris Poll surveyed 1,923 U.S. adults from Sept. 3-5, 2021.

Generations were defined as the following ages:

  • Generation Z: 18 to 24
  • Millennials: 25 to 40
  • Generation X: 41 to 56
  • Boomer+: 57 and older

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