Can Sustainability Deliver Fast Enough?
by Payton Shand
It’s 2020. Yet another person wakes up with a sore throat and high fever. There’s a pandemic outside their door and the whole world is shut down. Even if they had enough energy to drive themselves to the nearest pharmacy, they couldn’t: they’re all closed. Luckily, thanks to the direct delivery market, they’re able to lift their phone and order everything they need straight to their doorstep, without even getting out of bed. While this direct delivery service is convenient, sustainability takes a back seat.
It’s not a secret that the biggest contributors to the climate crisis are big corporations rather than the individual consumer, but tremendous pressure is placed on the consumer to do their part in the fight against the climate crisis. Images are etched into society’s heads of the lone polar bear whose iceberg is melting beneath him, or the coral reefs littered with bottles and cans. Most commodities have near-identical counterparts that are marketed as sustainable alternatives to apocalypse-fueling entities of convenience—but can a sustainable delivery option relieve a sore throat and high fever just as quickly as the NyQuil that a GoPuff driver could deliver to the door in thirty minutes? No, definitely not.
The paradox of valuing environmental sustainability yet purchasing greenhouse gas-inducing convenience is not an isolated instance. On a daily basis, consumers willingly compromise their values for a brand that remedies their primary pain points faster than others.
In a world of instant gratification overload, companies are desperate to reach and continuously engage an audience. Whether it’s the loading speed of a webpage, or weekly groceries dropped off on a doorstep in a matter of hours, people expect these companies to deliver—and fast. Direct delivery existed prior to COVID-19, of course, but the shifting consumer needs of pandemic made it a necessity for companies to adapt. For years, direct delivery was the only way for consumers to receive certain goods and services, making us increasingly averse to the in-person shopping experience. Companies like Amazon are grossing over $469 billion and continuing to grow exponentially year over year.
The correlation between a company’s success and how quickly it can meet the needs of its customers is ultra-apparent in today’s e-commerce-fueled market. The faster an organization can address convenience as a primary pain point, the sooner it wins a consumer’s loyalty. Unfortunately, with speed and convenience at the fingertips of the population, there comes an environmental cost to pay.
How, in the age of convenience can the rise of conscious consumerism—a morality-based mindset of the customer—have a seat at the economic table? As society has developed a growing sense of urgency to become more conscious of its ecological footprint, pressure has been placed on brands to do the same.
The obvious problem at play is the gaping disconnect between consumers’ surface-level desire for sustainability over their much more pressing need for convenience. Despite the three quarters of consumers stating that sustainability is somewhat or very important to them, only half of the senior retailer executives believe that sustainability is important in purchase consideration.
Moral righteousness doesn’t typically create lasting demand, and will likely never be reason enough for a company to adopt sustainability; consumer demands will always lead the conversation. There are economic forces at work in the industry that is making it more difficult to integrate environmental excellence into a business strategy. After all, there’s a reason why fast fashion brands exist. It’s better on the company’s dollar to use chemicals in foodstuffs, and not bother with sustainability. The biggest challenge for green businesses is that their products and services are going to be more costly, and the gains are going to be more long-term than immediate. The rise of the industry falls in line with globalization and the logistical efficiency of the 21st century. Despite knowing the catastrophic environmental effects of companies like Shein and Forever 21, consumers are addicted to convenience over sustainability.
The rate at which goods and services are expected to be acquired by consumers is higher than ever before. More often than not, the demand for sustainable goods and responsible consumption gets lost in the mix. Brands that support and employ locals will lose the battle against multinational e-commerce giants like Amazon. The “we can get it to you quicker” mentality may not be a circular practice—but time and time again, consumers will choose the quicker option over the sustainable option.
For the low, low price of environmental collapse, Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, will deliver anything and everything to a consumer’s doorstep within a matter of days, or even hours. While its primary offering—convenience—is extremely advantageous to a busy individual, it bears the unforgivable costs of worker exploitation, unsafe work conditions, and a gargantuan carbon footprint, to name a few. The list goes on. Amazon may neglect to align with the positive social, economic, and environmental impact that consumers crave, but none of that matters when its mission is “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” The category of direct delivery is massive, and its goal is to be customers’ number one choice across the entire category. Despite the limitations of the pandemic, Amazon continued to deliver anything from a loaf of bread to home improvement supplies to a Thanos one-piece swimsuit. It was during this time that Amazon was able to establish supremacy. Ultimately, Amazon will stop at nothing to get its products packed and shipped as soon as possible. It promises speed, and it always delivers. Amazon’s sustainable competitors can’t say the same.
The Rounds is a localized zero-waste delivery service that offers a wide range of “local favorites and sustainable basics.” Once its customer finishes a product, they are instructed to clean out the containers and place them on their doorstep. On the next delivery day, The Rounds will collect the containers, sanitize, and reuse them, which is the zero-waste element of its business strategy. The company is currently delivering to neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Miami, and Atlanta. According to Twitter, “the milkman walked so we could run.”
The Rounds promotes itself on out-of-home advertisements as the sustainable reason to stop using Amazon. Phrases like “Bye Bye Bezos” and “Quit Amazon” are designed to attract its conscious consumer clientele. From a sustainability standpoint, The Rounds is a great brand to support. However, The Rounds can’t truly compete with Amazon. For starters, it only delivers one day a week. If a customer runs out of moisturizer, too bad—they’ll just have to wait (or order a bottle from Amazon). Similarly, its offerings are limited to mostly generic staples: toilet paper, household cleaner, oat milk, etc. Advertising itself as a direct competitor of Amazon fails to consider the limitations of its product offerings. Consumers are loyal to their beloved brands. They’d rather have immediate access to Charmin, Mr. Clean, and Oatly than wait six days for a box of unlabeled diapers and a jar of dried pinto beans. Ultimately, The Rounds’ passive, sustainability-focused messaging lacks the urgency to combat Amazon’s primary offering: speed and convenience.
The road ahead for sustainable purchasing habits is paved with good intentions, but that’s not to say there isn’t any hope for the future. In the last few years, several major companies have recently announced climate pledges, environmental goals, social responsibility initiatives, and other CSR plans with the hopes of attracting sustainability-focused customers and building a positive reputation around their brand. Still, companies that are trying to position themselves as leaders at the forefront of the environmental movement, or those that are just entering the game, need to base their messaging around more than just sustainability. The serotonin boost of a one-click Amazon order will always win out over the weeklong wait for a bottle of hot sauce. All brands, sustainable or not, need to recognize that it’s not what customers want—it’s that customers want it now.
Story is such a compelling tool for brands to use to connect with their target audience—especially in today’s climate, in which sustainability is a critical consumer demand. Consumers will only fully align with a brand’s story if that story focuses on their primary pain point—speed and convenience.
Everyone on the planet already knows that they must pay attention to the climate crisis at hand. However, most consumers can’t perceive it as something immediate to them, therefore not changing their consumption habits. The way to get people to shop sustainably must be to focus the brand’s story around the idea of speed and convenience over sustainability. Sustainability doesn’t need to be lost in the story—it just will never hold up to convenience.
Payton Shand is a brand storyteller at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.