Easy Being Green? Talking Purpose with Charli Ferrand Higgins
| By Jennifer Kuklenski |
This article is an edited transcript of Episode 5 of the Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs podcast. Listen to the audio version on Anchor, Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
On April 8, 2022, I had the pleasure of speaking with Charli Ferrand Higgins on the podcast, Easy Being Green? Lessons in Sustainable Business for SMEs. In addition to hosting the podcast and supporting purpose-driven businesses with conscious content marketing, Charli spends her time managing and editing the planet-positive content hub: Earth Collective.
We covered a lot of ground in this conversation. We talked about my journey from military member to college professor, business owner and public policy advisor. We chatted about my vision here at 3P Insights, and the meaning of being a purpose-driven entrepreneur. We explored the topics of green-washing and purpose-washing, which ultimately led us to a conversation about marketing. We explained how a “less is more” approach can be better for people, the planet, and our businesses.
We concluded our conversation with a question Charli always asks her podcast guests: Whether there is such a thing as a truly sustainable business, yet?
After our conversation, we both felt incredibly inspired to keep doing this work. We hope it will do the same for you!
Episode 5: Talking Purpose with Dr. Jennifer Kuklenski[Transcript prepared by Earth Collective]
Charli: Hi, Jennifer. It’s so lovely to have you here today. Thank you so much for coming on Easy Being Green?.
Jennifer: Thank you for having me. Charlie, it’s wonderful to be connected with you on here and I can’t wait to chat today.
Charli: Fantastic. So we met in rather, I like to say, a millennial way. I don’t know if it is a millennial way, but it feels that way to me. And that was via the medium of Instagram. And you commented on some things on Earth Collective’s Instagram, which we’re always very grateful for.
But I then did a little bit of stalking of you. And once I overcome my absolute jealousy of the beautiful place that you live in, with the snow everywhere, it looks like a fairyland. I had this overwhelming feeling of connection to you from all the way over here in the UK and to your mission. And it seems that there’s a few things that connect us in terms of the things we love. We both paddleboard, we both love the outdoors, and we’re both working to support businesses navigate their journey towards sustainability.
But then I dug a little bit deeper (I’m such as stalker!) and I found out you have two Masters, a PhD, you’re a professor and author, and a diversity inclusion and sustainability expert. And what I love it says on your Instagram – a sustainability optimist. I love that you’re also the founder of 3P Insights. And that’s just the start of the list.
So to start us off today, I just would really love, Jennifer, to know about your journey and what got you to where you are today.
Jennifer: Well, first of all, thank you for that really warm introduction. It’s so cool to be able to connect with people like you on Instagram. Honestly, I can’t believe the amazing people I’ve met through this platform. And definitely I think we have a lot in common. Right. And that’s the really cool thing about social media is that you can find people with similar interests, but also wildly different backgrounds. So I find all of that quite exciting.
In terms of my background, it’s quite diverse and a bit unconventional. So in terms of the beauty of nature, I grew up and now live again in one of the most pristine regions of the US, which is the border region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin. So living here and especially growing up here, before I moved, and moving away and seeing sort of the lack of that beauty in other parts of the country and even the world, and then coming back, I think has afforded me a really incredible access to nature and nature’s value.
But here we get to enjoy all four seasons. I mean, there’s a lot of beautiful places in the world, of course. But like you mentioned, right now, there’s a lot of snow, and we had a lot of snow for about six months. So we do have very long and snowy winters, but they really are sort of a winter Wonderland. But we also have amazing summers where I live. People always say you move here for the winter, right, because there’s all of this sort of white capital, as people will say, right? There’s this beautiful white snow cover. You can ski, snowboard, cross country ski, Nordic ski, snowshoe, all of these amazing things. But they stay here for the summer because the summers here are just incredible.
And so you mentioned paddleboarding, so absolutely, I love paddleboarding, love getting out on the water, especially Lake Superior, which I post a lot about in the summer on Instagram.
But I really think that living here has sort of created a way for me to learn about the intrinsic value of nature and has ingrained in me a sense that I need to protect, or at least help protect. I can’t do it alone, but I need to help protect these lands and the ecosystems and people that they support.
I’ve also been really passionate about social justice issues as well. I went to College in Minnesota for my undergrad, and I majored in political science and international relations. So I wasn’t always in business, although my parents are small business owners. So I’ve been surrounded by business my whole life. But I started in politics, and I felt like that was where I could really make an impact, working in government and sort of that political and international relations space, and that’s where I really took interest in sort of the social, political, and cultural issues that our world faces.
I also joined the military when I was 18, and that gave me a whole new perspective on global problems, as well as sort of our role in helping overcome them. But I had sort of this environmental value or values, I should say. And then I had sort of these social values.
And so I did my first Masters in international security, and I focused on climate security, and then I have an MBA, like you mentioned, in environmental management and sustainability, and my PhD is in international development. And so I feel like all of this sort of holistic understanding of environmental and social issues has afforded me the ability to really become a holistic sustainability expert.
You mentioned that I also have a background in diversity, equity and inclusion, and that actually I started learning about and researching diversity and inclusion in my undergrad. I was part of an organization called Communicating Common Ground, and we worked with community partners and especially educational institutions to try to sort of bridge the cultural gap between people of very diverse backgrounds, of course, in the US. Right. It’s an incredibly diverse country. And so even at a very young age, I was interested in that. But then in my PhD program, I was offered a Fellowship with an organization called Humanity in Action, absolutely fantastic international educational, nonprofit organization. And there they asked us to research and publish on matters related to diversity and inclusion. So I think that really solidified sort of my expertise. I was then asked by Emerald Publishing out of the UK to write a book on diversity and organizational development, which I did, and it was published last summer. So that was a life goal of mine.
Charli: Yes. That’s huge. Amazing.
Jennifer: Yeah. So it was wonderful. But I’m still really drawn to the environmental stuff, too, right? As you can tell if you follow any of my social media. So interweaving sort of the environmental and social justice pieces. And then coming kind of back to my roots in business.
My parents are business owners. I grew up with this kind of just business surrounding, if you will. Right. Small business owners stick together, they kind of form a community. So I’ve been a part of that community, and I sort of came back to that in my PhD program and especially as I became a professor at Northland College, which is an environmental Liberal arts College in Northern Wisconsin. And so that really gave me sort of the platform to bring all of these pieces of sustainability together and apply them to a business context.
As you mentioned, I also do run my company, 3P Insights, and I offer training, consulting, coaching, and networking services related to the three pillars of sustainability people, planet, and profit.
I do all of this and actually, just moving into a public policy position with a company focused on the clean energy transition. So I’ll actually just be doing affiliate professor work, moving forward after this year and moving back, kind of into that government business next in my new public policy position.
So it’s really exciting times, but yeah, I kind of do a lot of different things, but it all revolves around sustainability.
Charli: What a portfolio! I just have to take a deep breath. That’s such absolutely incredible. And honestly finding some time to come to talk to me today. I’m not sure how you did it, but yeah, incredible portfolio. And clearly the right person that I should be talking to.
It was interesting what you were saying there about being in nature and how much that influences the way we think about the world at the moment. I’m in the middle of the Moors in rural southwest England, and we were just talking when we were out walking the dog this morning about the oh, living here would be lovely, but in the winter you’d need a 4×4 because it gets really snowy and icy. And then we said, but it doesn’t anymore because the climate is changing. It actually isn’t how “bad” it was – “bad”, which is, we love the snow and we love the four seasons – but it’s not as “bad” as it used to be.
And I have this notion that – you were talking about working in politics and policy change. So many of our politicians live in cities, in concrete jungles. And I feel like when you don’t touch nature on a regular basis, you forget that it is all that there is. You could take everything else away in this nature still provides.
I’ve just gone off in the complete tangent there. But that’s what I was thinking about when you were talking about coming home to Wisconsin.
Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve lived in big cities, and for ten years I lived in larger cities. I lived kind of all over the US and in a few other countries. And I don’t know that I could ever go back. And I absolutely think that my ability to immerse myself in nature, literally by walking out of my door is something that’s really important and keeps me sort of grounded in why we do this work, especially on the environmental sustainability side.
Charli: Yeah, absolutely. And to everyone listening. I’ll put Jennifer’s Instagram in our show notes. Please go and have a look because gosh! Some of the videos you post are just absolutely beautiful.
Let’s talk more about 3P Insight. What inspired – you said a little bit there about what inspired you – to found the business?
What problem are you trying to solve with 3P Insights?
Jennifer: Yeah. So as a professor of business, I’ve had several business owners over the years reached out to me for support here and there. Actually, before I moved into academia, I was working in an economic nonprofit and I was working with business services. So helping small businesses, especially with some medium sized businesses, just with lots of different business challenges. I had some of those folks who still knew me that would reach out years later for support. But I was helping these businesses just sort of here and there, some with a business plan. Some just wanted some general insights to help get their business started. Some wanted more comprehensive support like overcoming financial challenges or barriers, or even help with strategic planning, which would be sort of the high level business support services I provide. And I’ve had larger corporations reach out to me for training seminars and workshops as well as support with their sustainability strategy.
And so I had been doing this type of work on and off for about four years in my professorship capacity, and then even longer in my nonprofit management role before I moved into academia.
And finally in 2020, when we all seem to have a little bit more time on our hands due to lockdowns and social distancing, I decided to put all of my services that I had been doing already under one umbrella, but really dive into that focus on sustainable organizational development. And so obviously as a scholar in sustainable business, I was seeing an increased need for support for businesses in terms of how to run their business efficiently while also making a bigger impact than simply earning a profit. And of course, if anyone is following this space right, we know that the data suggests that this is the way forward in business, and those businesses that don’t prioritize sustainable practices or purpose driven impact will be left behind.
So business owners and leaders across the globe are realizing that sustainable business is good business. And with a growing number of conscious consumers, sustainability is a competitive advantage. But a lot of business owners don’t know how to get there, so I help them with that.
I provide consulting services for large and small businesses ranging from solopreneurs to multimillion dollar corporations. I provide one on one coaching services as well, mostly to small businesses and startups. And I offer training like workshops and webinars for businesses trying to educate their workforce on issues related to sustainability and inclusion. I also do some of that training for non profits as well. But I would say business are businesses are my primary clients.
But one thing I realized after talking with loads of smaller businesses is that there isn’t always a budget for one on one consulting or coaching support. And I also don’t take on a lot of clients at one time because I do have a full time job. Right? So I created in response to sort of that need or that problem of needing affordable information about how to improve the impacts in your business. I created the 3P Insights Learning Library, which includes video tutorials, workshops, webinars and full courses actually related to business management and strategy, as well as a great deal of information on impact related topics like sustainability, wellness and diversity, equity and inclusion. I also offer some networking and community building opportunities through the library.
And my vision was sort of, let’s create this virtual space where it kind of mirrors your community library. Right. You can go in there, you can learn research at your own pace, on your own time. You can access resources to help you improve your just business more generally. Right. Your business outcomes more broadly, but also that sustainability, that impact driven focus, too. My thought was that: let’s kind of mirror what a library looks like, allow people to access the materials. And then with every video tutorial I have or webinar workshop or even courses, I have additional resources. So I have workbooks in there. I have handouts, I have links to more resources that can help you gain the knowledge you need to improve the impacts of your business. And through this, I think that it’s been really cool to see how helpful it’s been by having kind of this one stop shop for business owners.
So one thing that one of my clients told me was that there’s too much information out there. Right. So you might not be able to find all of the information I have in the library somewhere else. Because obviously as a professor of business, I have a vast research background, and I always have my sort of impact driven twist, even to the basic stuff like email marketing. But you can find a lot of information out there. But there’s so much information and unfortunately, there’s some bad information as well. Right. There are tips from management experts. Right. Or professionals that might guide you in the wrong direction, especially if you’re a business that wants to make a positive impact on people in the planet. And so it’s kind of that one stop shop that gives you an outlet. You don’t have to go looking elsewhere. I’ve done all the research for you, and I bring in other experts as well. So it’s not just me creating this content. And that was sort of my vision. Right. Allow people to learn on their own time and make incremental improvements as they’re able to.
Charli: Excellent. You’re so right about the Internet – is an amazing resource tool research tool that we have had for most of; I came of age while the Internet was becoming a thing I remember when we used to do, I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but we used to look on like encyclopedias and Britannica and things like that. That was the extent of it. Now you can find everything on the Internet, and it can be; if you don’t think critically, you can find the wrong thing or you can find something to back up your point. No matter what your point is, there’ll be a piece of research out there that will agree with you and it can be a bit dangerous.
And the other side of it, I think as a small business owner, who’s trying to be on their journey towards sustainability or making positive impact is trying to do the right thing in your business with things like you say, email marketing, Facebook, social media, utilizing resources, and just having somebody like yourself to talk to who understands that side of it, rather than just a generalized business expert or having those resources in your library, I can imagine can be super helpful.
Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. And the other thing that I find with some of the information out there is that it’s driven from one person’s perspective in their one business, which definitely has value. But I think the value that I try to bring is I’ve read about thousands of businesses. Right. All different sizes. I’ve done the research. And so when I tell someone something, it’s not based on if they want to know my perspective, which I’ll probably share with you some of my personal perspective today. But I can certainly give that to people and of course would share that. But I’m sharing knowledge and information from a broad perspective. Right.
So if we look at 1000 businesses, what are the lessons learned? And those are the lessons that are really going to help business owners make an impact, because one person’s experience in their own business is possibly not going to be applicable to you if you have a different target market, if you operate in a different geographical context or a different market altogether or a different industry. Some of those lessons can be broadly applied, but some cannot.
And so as a researcher in the field, I think it’s really important to give people information that has been tested. Right. And sort of proven through the research. It can be so stressful as well because you’re looking at what other people are doing or somebody post an amazing case study of a campaign that’s worked really well from them. And you’re like, why isn’t this working for me? But like you say, there are some things that broadly apply across multiple businesses, and some things just will work for some people and not for other businesses. So, yeah, I totally see where you’re going.
Charli: Yeah, absolutely. So a discussion I’ve had a lot recently, and I’m sure you’ve had the same is about the word sustainability. We’ve said it a lot in this podcast in this interview already, and it’s been out there, hashtag used in marketing materials, slapped onto ranges that come out for mainstream fashion brands. It’s been so overused and misused that it feels like we don’t know what it means anymore. And we feel like it’s being green washed. You can say you’re sustainable now.
And I think, like you say, consumers are being really savvy. They know what they want. People want good things for the planet. They’re demanding that, which is a great thing, because we can be more discerning in how we take that word on board when it’s slapped onto a brand. And we’ve seen recently seen brands have their adverts banned over misleading environmental claims and been accused of greenwashing.
Jennifer: In that sense, that’s a really great point. It’s interesting, for the last several months, I’ve actually been working with a strategic planning task course at an environmentally focused organization on the development of new mission, vision and values statements. So they’re sort of in their five year strategic review and setting for a sort of a ten year plan, which includes a new direction, if you will. And during the discussions about mission, some of the folks on the task force felt that the word sustainable should be used, while others did not. So some felt it should be used in the mission statement. Some felt it shouldn’t.
Now, for this particular organization, sustainability, especially environmental sustainability, but even sort of the social and economic justice piece is really woven into the fabric of this organization. But those that were against using the word sustainability felt that the word was perceived in too many different ways to be impactful if included in the mission statement. They, in essence, thought that the term has lost its meaning and that including sustainability would just become another buzzword. But I push back on this a bit. While I do see people throw out their own definitions of sustainable or sustainability, which really is a pet peeve of mine as a researcher, right? We like concrete definitions. So if someone throws out their own definition of sustainable or sustainability, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a concrete and a correct definition.
In fact, sustainable development was defined by the United Nations back in 1987 as development that meets the needs of the present world without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. And while this definition does offer a lot of flexibility in terms of interpretation, the field of sustainable business has established that sustainability holistically involves a balanced commitment to an organization’s economic, environmental, and social bottom lines.
And so I would say that as an educator in this space, I feel personally responsible to help bring awareness to the fact that this word does have a concrete meaning. And just because some person or some business has a different interpretation of the term, that doesn’t mean that their interpretation is correct. And it doesn’t mean that that word is meaningless. If we want to make progress on any issue, whether it’s social, environmental, or economic, we need to have a shared understanding of the problem. And concrete definitions provide that foundational understanding.
So it’s important that we recognize that sustainability does have a proper definition, and that definition provides the grounding we need to make progress toward achieving the sustainable development goals. And I think this is where a lot of organizations get in trouble.
Most often I see a business or even a nonprofit or educational organization focus on one aspect of sustainability. Maybe they only focus on environmental sustainability, but then they tout themselves in their marketing materials or just the way they speak about themselves as a sustainable business or organization. But this is misleading, because making one small change doesn’t make your organization sustainable. Right.
And I am a firm believer in progress over perfection and that any progress in improving social or environmental outcomes is good. But the problem of green washing arises when businesses market themselves as environmentally sustainable, when that status hasn’t quite been reached by them. And so being a truly sustainable organization means that you’ve taken a look at your entire value chain and you’ve maximized the positive and minimize the negative economic, environmental, and social impacts involved with producing or using your goods and services. And that ranges from the materials sourced to operations. Right. Your daily operations to the end of life product considerations, what happens to your good when people are done using it?
And so to that end, greenwashing really only covers misleading environmental claims, which, as you noted, are increasingly being highlighted by consumers when an environmental claim is misleading. But green washing is just one part of a bigger problem of color-washing. And there’s many ways that businesses, unfortunately market themselves as socially or environmentally responsible, when in fact, they aren’t.
Charli: Absolutely, the same thing with purpose. We’re seeing purpose driven brands, purpose driven organizations. What does it mean?
What does purpose mean? What do you think it means in business? And how can businesses fall into this avoid falling into this trap of purpose washing and color washing, like, as you so eloquently push it?
Jennifer: Yeah. So you’re absolutely right. We’ve been hearing the words greenwashing a lot. I think we don’t hear the broader color washing terms, like blue washing, pink washing, purple watching quite as much, although they’re happening just as often. But we are starting to hear this term purpose-washing. Right. And I think you may have read one of my recent impact articles, where I actually asked the question whether purpose is the buzzword of the 21st century. And what I found is, in fact, purpose has become a management buzzword over the last decade.
So just to give you some statistics, since 2010 the word purpose has appeared in the titles of more than 400 leadership and business books, as well as thousands of articles. And so we know that it’s increasing in popularity. And there’s good reason for that. If you actually can establish a well defined purpose that actually does drive decision making and motivate behavior in your organization, your organization will be more successful. That’s what the data shows us.
But that led to a lot of businesses sort of jumping on the purpose-driven bandwagon, so to speak. And unfortunately, the majority of those companies still don’t really have a well defined purpose or purpose statement. Some of them have developed purpose statements, but they misrepresent the actual nature of their business.
So if you read a typical purpose statement, you’ll likely find highly aspirational, but incredibly vague statements like “change the world” or “make a difference in people’s lives”. And strategy thought leaders have explained that statements like these sort of miss the heart of what drives a successful business. They don’t tell us anything about what the business actually does or who it serves. And also suggesting that one business can itself change the world, of course, is misleading, right? We can’t do it. Achieving a more sustainable world. Creating a more sustainable world requires partnerships and everyone to do their part. One organization cannot do it alone.
And so one of my favorite quotes about purpose was actually published in the Harvard Business Review’s article titled Why Are We Here? And the article was written by two professors of strategy from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. And they said:
“A great purpose statement is of limited use if your firm cannot execute it on it.”
And so consumers are increasingly drawn to these brands and businesses that have a purpose beyond profit, especially those that are interested in more sustainable goods and services. And businesses have responded with those ideal statements that they can never actually implement or measure in practice, either because the statement is too lofty for one business to act on in any measurable way, or because actually implementing that purpose is way beyond the scope of their capabilities or resources. And so I think that’s why so many businesses are accused of purpose washing. And I think that it’s unintentional in many cases.
Of course, there are, unfortunately, some businesses and brands that have drafted purpose statements with little or no intent to execute on them. And that is a bigger problem of purpose washing. When this happens, though, even if it’s unintentional purpose washing or intentional purpose washing, there is a very real risk that purpose is going to be seen as inauthentic or just another business buzzword, as you’ve mentioned.
Charli: Absolutely. It’s so interesting. I worked in PR and communications for a decade based out of Sydney in Australia, and it kind of reminds me a little bit of I used to write mission statements for brands, and I wouldn’t say which brands, I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but sometimes it was all about the words and sounding good. It feels fairly similar, but in a much scarier way, because this is when we’re talking about purpose in the realm of sustainability and creating a better future for everyone. It’s not just a mission statement, which is something about your brand. And people see it as a bit of a marketing tool, perhaps. But when it’s about purpose and there’s no backup behind it, that can be, like you say, quite dangerous because you’re then spending money on your business and you’re doing things and you’re convincing people of certain ways that you’re acting. And there’s actually nothing solid behind that, which is kind of scary.
But I wanted to ask you why this is happening. Are these buzzwords? Are they coming about because of the consumer demand where people calling out – human demand, I prefer to say I hate calling people consumers, because we’re human beings – calling out brands and businesses and saying, hang on a minute. Your range of eco where in one range in your whole (I always quote fashion brands for this one because it’s the easiest one), the one range of eco wear in your whole outfit of products. What’s what about all the rest of them? Where’s the sustainability and that.
So do you think that that’s pushing brands to try and have a purpose without really understanding what that means?
Yes, I think so. And I think we’re seeing this happen for two reasons. One is, of course, as you’ve noted, consumers – or humans – people who buy things – as well as other interested parties. Right. So the people who buy our products aren’t the only constituents that we have to be cognizant of or responsible to. It might be policymakers that are demanding changes or nonprofit organizations that are shining a light on our unethical or unsustainable practices. But these people are demanding more transparency, and they do want to see purpose beyond profit. And so that’s part of it.
I think the other part of it, though, and this is probably the more well-intentioned piece of it, is there’s a wide body of research that is showing that if you have a really well-founded purpose in your organization, your employees, which are also important interested constituents in your market. Right. Your employees will be more motivated. That’s I think the other piece that it’s sort of an employee motivation thing that businesses are trying to capitalize on, too, if they have employees, of course. If you’re a solopreneur, it’s really just motivating yourself and the people who might buy your goods and services. But if you have employees, purpose can be a really good motivator.
But that’s only if your purpose is really woven into the DNA of your business. And I think that’s where a lot of businesses. and even other organizations, but I think businesses are having a harder time with it. With nonprofits, you’re sort of inherently purpose driven. And I think that’s why you get a lot of people interested in working in the nonprofit world, even if salaries aren’t as high as the business world, because they have this really deep rooted purpose.
But businesses are starting to recognize that. But they don’t weave it in to their DNA. Right. They do things that go against this purpose that they’ve said they stand for and is the meaning behind their brand, their reason for being. And so that’s where I think it really starts to unravel.
In some cases, you have really well intentioned purpose statements, and in other cases you have deceptive purpose statements. Right. Let’s just use the buzzwords to attract people to buy our goods. But even when it’s well intentioned, it often unravels because it’s just not deeply interwoven into the strategy and the everyday day to day operations of the organization.
Charli: Got you. So let’s talk about content for a moment. Just coming back to my favorite thing in the world, content. That’s what we are. Earth Collective is a bit of a content machine. And I’ve already sung the praises of your Instagram. It makes me happy every time I look at another video of the snow, because you just don’t get snow like that here in the UK.
A few months ago, we decided that Earth Collective that – it was a few reasons, actually, but it’s progressed, because I’ve been speaking to Greenpixie. You might have heard the podcast we did on that with Jon, the CEO of Greenpixie, about digital carbon. But we started understanding the impact of digital carbon a while ago and we decided to reduce our content output – which sounds kind of wild for a publisher – because of the carbon footprint of it. But also we wanted to be more authentic. We wanted to produce content that only put content out there when we thought it was something that our audience would really engage with and resonate with.
So, for example, we try to post on our socials only twice a week. We only send out an email once a month, which yeah, old e-commerce business clients will probably think that was completely bonkers.
I saw you posted something about this on (ironically) Instagram about posting less on Instagram. So I wondered what your thoughts were on this and can it be a less is more kind of situation?
Jennifer: Yes. First of all, thank you so much. As you can tell by looking at my content, my purpose is largely inspired by nature. It’s very snowy right now, but hopefully we have a snowstorm going on today. But hopefully within about a month or so, we’ll start to move into that wonderful summer that I talked to you about earlier. I’s motivating for me to be able to share that content to help people who maybe do live in cities. There’s nothing wrong with living in a city, but maybe they don’t get to see sort of that natural beauty as much. And so that is part of what I’m trying to do, is remind people of what it is we’re trying to protect.
But second of all, I just want to say that I’m so happy to hear that you decided to reduce your content output. You’re so right. If you listen to conventional marketers, they’ll tell you to blast your audience constantly. They’ll tell you that you need to stay in front of your audience as much as possible. And the way to do that is multiple social media posts per week. Actually, many conventional marketers will say two posts a day, which for small and medium sized organizations is just unrealistic. But they’ll also say multiple short emails, right? Every week. Keep it short and it’s going to increase your engagement.
But the truth is, nobody likes advertisements. It’s why people are literally willing to pay for radio and television services that have no ads over services that have ads. Right? People don’t like ads. They also hate spam. So while some people will tolerate ads if they’re really quirky or if they’re entertaining, they have some sort of entertainment value to them. Maybe. But they hate spam. And so in today’s marketing world, quality over quantity really is key to success. And that is especially true if your target market includes sustainability-minded consumers.
In the world of impact marketing, which is actually one of the workshops that I have in the 3P Insights Library, I have this whole workshop about impact marketing, but we call the most conscious consumers LOHAS consumers, those that are living lifestyles of health and sustainability. And these are the folks that care about where their products come from, how they’re made. They hate the waste that’s created when they’re done using a product or something like that. They are the people who are willing to spend time educating themselves before making a purchase and want to see a brand that helps with that education piece. Right. That is transparent.
And these are also the folks that are increasingly realizing the impact of their digital carbon footprint. Every social media post that we post, every email we send, every podcast episode has a negative environmental impact associated with it. And in fact, some studies have found that the carbon footprint associated with our Internet activities is roughly the size of the carbon footprint of the airline industry.
It’s a big part of the CO2 emissions that are causing climate disasters. And so if we say that we are a business working towards sustainability, then we need to consider our digital footprint. And I think this is especially true for businesses that are ecommerce businesses are online based to start with.
You talked about the social media example that I had, and I’ll let your listeners go ahead and check that out themselves. But I’d also like to talk a little bit about some impacts that the research has found. So in that post, I referenced a 2020 study in France which found that publishing one photo on Instagram a static post results in a carbon footprint of about 0.15 grams of CO2 equivalent per minute. And that might not seem like a lot, but multiply that by 1.4 billion active Instagram users and it adds up quickly. So that’s a big impact.
In the 3P Insights Learning Library, I have an intro to email marketing video tutorial. And in this tutorial, I discuss the basics of just a strong email marketing campaign. But I also discuss the question of how often should you send an email? And I relate that question back to the carbon footprint associated with email marketing and of course, how to reduce it. So the footprint of emails can vary dramatically. A study that was conducted by Mike Berners-Lee, who is a fellow at Lancaster University, found that an email with only one photo or a hefty attachment emits as much as 50 grams of CO2 equivalent. Now, it is really hard to measure these, but these are some of the better estimates that scholars have been able to make. Now think about your marketing emails and how many photos you usually have. Right? Usually they have several photos.
Charli: It’s got to look away certain way, hasn’t it? It looks nice, right?
Jennifer: Yeah, of course. And I love pictures, especially if it’s of nature. And actually, experts will tell you that best practice is to include between three and ten images in your email marketing campaign. So even if we’re on the low end of that, we have three.
But let’s say we have an average of five images per campaign. Multiply that by 50 grams CO2 equivalents, and we get 250 grams of CO2 equivalent per email. If we have 100 subscribers, that’s 25,000 grams per campaign. And so to put this into perspective, that’s roughly the equivalent of driving 60 miles in an average gas powered passenger vehicle.
Charli: Oh, my gosh.
Jennifer: Yeah. So as more and more research is being conducted on the impact our digital footprint has, this information is being shared with people. Right. Especially those LOHAS consumers. They’re trying to find out what their digital footprint is. And if we’re blasting them with emails three, four times a week or every day, which I would never recommend, they’re going to unsubscribe.
And so I will say and this is where maybe I’ll talk a little bit about my own experience. But I like you have reduced my email and social media campaigns and posting quite a bit. So with social media, I post two or three times a week. Three would be the most. And with email, I used to send several emails a month, and I’ve sort of decreased that to one newsletter per month. So it’s just one sort of value packed newsletter. And like you said, experts would say, well, this isn’t enough and the email shouldn’t be very long. But I’ll tell you what, from my experience, my open rates have gone up, my click rates have gone up, my unsubscribes have gone down. And so for my audience, it works.
I imagine that many of your listeners have a similar audience to mine. And so LOHAS consumers are really looking for value. And so I have no interest in wasting their time. And as an educator, I really want to help share valuable information that people can use to live, work and do business more sustainably. And it sounds like you’re doing the same. And I applaud you for that. I think that that is the way forward if we’re going to reduce our digital carbon footprint.
Charli: Well, thank you so much for the positive feedback on that. It’s good to hear. And actually, when we reduced the amount of posts we did, particularly on social, we did see our engagement go up pretty quick, like pretty instantly. So that was amazing.
Yeah. I was going to say something else then, but I’ve lost my train of thought I got too excited about doing the right thing!
Jennifer: Yeah, I wish more people would sort of decrease that – because it’s like when you follow businesses that post every day, it just starts to feel like spam. And there’s other ways to stay in front of your audience. So that’s something to consider, too.
Charli: I just remembered I was going to say – I have Google Gmail accounts and it filters your mail, doesn’t it? I don’t know if yours does the same into primary and then you get promotions and then something else – social. And the number of times I just go in and click select all, delete. I want to sit down and unsubscribe from everything because I know that even getting an email has a carbon footprint. Right. So in real time, in my personal experience, I’m not reading all of those emails that some marketing person somewhere has spent lots of time putting together. And it’s going straight into my promotions or my socials folder and then getting select all, delete. So that’s a waste of carbon and a waste of somebody’s time.
Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. Our efforts could certainly be put towards better uses and the money you’d save by cutting down on some of the spammy marketing is something that you can put towards some of the things that are needed to maybe become more environmentally or socially conscious.
Charli: So coming back to you, Jennifer:
What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning? What drives you every day with all the hundreds of things that you have on your to do list?
Jennifer: So for me, it’s really whether it’s good or bad, some internal feeling that I want to make a difference, to be a part of something larger than myself. Even as a young child, my mom used to record whatever we were doing on the weekends. My mom had a big video camera and she would record it all, and it’s all documented and super fun to watch as an adult. But I would go around saying I was thinking about conflicts that were going on when I was four years old, and I would talk about the need to protect animals. I’m very drawn to animals, so it’s just sort of been a part of who I am. I’ve always had this kind of feeling that it’s not just about me, that I’m a part of something larger than myself. And so I’ve always kind of felt this responsibility towards making the world a better place and helping people.
Of course, when I spend time in nature and even when I’ve lived and travelled abroad and I’ve seen some of the horrible working conditions that some people are in many cases forced to be in, especially in some developing countries, it’s a reminder of why we need to continue to make progress.
The other thing that goes along with that is – I’m not perfect. I don’t always choose the most sustainable option. I am one of those who does a lot of research before I buy a product, before I engage in a business partnership. Right. A business to business partnership, whether that’s a merchant that I’m working with, whether it’s a client, I do a lot of due diligence, but it doesn’t always mean that I always make the perfect choice. And I think that when you live in a world where you don’t have to see the direct consequences of your buying choices or your choices more broadly, it can be easy to forget that there’s a cost associated with every purchase we make, especially if it’s a cheap purchase. And I’ve made a lot of progress in terms of this, and I know a lot of others have, too.
We have this amazing community of conscious business owners and just people who are trying to live more consciously. But I think that we have to forgive ourselves when we maybe make the wrong choice. And also remember that our systems aren’t necessarily set up to support sustainable living and sustainable business at the moment.
Charli: So true. And you just reminded me as well something I said right at the beginning of this chat, which was about politicians in cities not being in nature and that impacting on the decisions they make, but also me saying that it’s a really privileged thing for me to say because I’m very lucky that I get to live in very close to the countryside and the ocean, and some people don’t have that opportunity.
And it’s the same thing with what you’re saying there about this kind of blinkered view we can have on the world where we get a product – the same with animal products. Right? You don’t know don’t acknowledge what happened to feed you or that product to get to you – and we can just ignore it unless, once you’ve overturned that first stone, you don’t ignore it anymore. But, yeah, that’s a really interesting point. And I just wanted to acknowledge that both of those situations – being in nature and having products and not being able to see where they come from – is a very privileged point of view and very privileged position to be in. Yeah, that’s interesting.
Jennifer: Yeah, it absolutely is. And that’s something that when I talk with sort of in the broader community. So maybe not necessarily with business owners, although it certainly would be important for business owners to keep in mind is that right now the sustainable choice is often more expensive, and not everybody has the means or the resources to engage in that kind of buying behavior.
There’s a really important access piece, I think that is a part of sustainability, which I think fits into that sort of inclusion piece, and understanding that many times people in this space are talking from a point of privilege. So we have to figure out a way to make the sustainable option the easy option and make it more accessible for everyone. And I think that’s why I love sustainable business so much is because business is the one who provides a lot of that stuff for people. And the more and more businesses that choose the sustainable option, there’s an economies of a scale piece to it. And so the more that are doing it, the easier it gets, the less costly it gets to produce that stuff. And the more accessible it will be for everyone.
Charli: That is a brilliant segue to my last question for you today, which is what we ask all our guests on this podcast, and that is:
Do you think there is such a thing as a truly sustainable business yet?
And I think I know what your answer is going to be!
Jennifer: It’s probably similar to most of the answers you get on this podcast. I think the short answer is no, right. I think that one challenge, like we’ve already mentioned, that businesses face is the affordability piece, or lack thereof for sustainable options. For example, if I produce a t-shirt, it’s going to be more expensive to source organic cotton or textiles produced from recycled materials. And as more and more businesses do this type of sourcing, the cost will come down. But right now, it simply is more expensive to produce a t-shirt sustainably. T
o add to the cost in holistic sustainability, we also look at labor practices involved with producing that t-shirt. And the goal is, of course, that labor is paid a living wage and treated well. But again, there is a cost associated to that. And so if you’re producing a t-shirt in, say, the United States or the UK, you can certainly embrace a holistic, sustainable value chain, but it is going to cost more. And when you’re competing against companies that aren’t doing that, and that could be in the US or the UK or it could be in any part of the world. Right. Theirs is going to be cheaper.
And we still have this intention and action gap in sustainable development where if I ask someone, right, if I go into my circle of friends or if I do a survey as a researcher and I ask people on the street, would you prefer to buy a product that is produced in a socially and environmentally conscious way? Most people will say yes, right? And I think some of the data shows between 75 and 85% of people will say yes. But when you look at their actions at the checkout line, they don’t always do that.
And so there’s a lot of businesses that I work with who will say we want to pay our labor more. We want to give more benefits to the people working for us. And these are businesses that maybe already are treating their labor better than others. But they say we want to include organic cotton and have our whole line be organic cotton. Right? Or whatever it is. But there just simply aren’t enough people buying it for us to stay in business if we do it. And so I think there’s that intention/action gap that prevents some businesses from fully committing to sustainability.
But like I mentioned earlier, our systems also aren’t really set up to support sustainable business practices. For example, if a business wants to be powered by renewable energy, there may not be options available in their region. There are some energy companies that are making it a possibility to be completely 100% clean energy powered or even renewable energy powered. But there are some companies or energy providers that aren’t doing that everywhere. And so if a business doesn’t have that option, you need power, you need power to live, you need power to function as a business. And so your only option might be to reduce your energy as much as you can and offset. But offsetting, of course, comes with its own warranted criticisms.
So I would say that to answer your question, right, there are very few, if any, truly sustainable businesses right now. But there are loads of businesses that are making incremental improvements to operate more sustainably. And that’s what we need. We don’t need perfection. We need progress. And so sustainability is about producing our products in a way that minimizes environmental, social and economic harm while creating prosperity in a healthy environment that can be enjoyed for generations to come. And I think there are a lot of businesses that are making those improvements, and that’s what we need.
Charli: That is the most perfect place to end this conversation today. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I have learned so much from you today. It’s been a wonderful – I love this podcast because I get to meet and talk with people like yourself. So thank you so much for your time, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you so much, Charli. It was absolutely my pleasure to be here today.
Charli: Thank you so much for joining me for today’s episode. I hope it has been useful and at least a little inspiring to your own sustainable business journey.
This podcast episode is also available as a written article on weareearthcollective.com.
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Charli Ferrand Higgins is a conscious content expert and host of the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in Sustainable Business for SMEs. After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven SMEs to grow through conscious content marketing, and managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective.
3P INSIGHTS is a consulting firm that offers training, speaking and support services to help organizations attract and retain diverse talent, create inclusive workplaces, become better environmental stewards, and improve their overall social, environmental, and economic impact.
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