Categorizing Sustainability Marketing Strategies: A Summary of the Sustainable Initiative Transparency Matrix

Adapted from Rebecca Crook, 12/13/2021.

Written by Lauren Besser, Graduate Student, AgNext, Colorado State University  

The recent demand for sustainability initiatives and development plans has stimulated change in the world of agriculture. With the recent agenda announcement from the Biden administration for the “Build Back Better Plan,” many companies in the United States are scrambling to adopt climate change mitigation plans, coupled with adaptation of flexibility in existing climate plans. Depending upon an entity’s product offerings, there are different approaches a company can take regarding their communication about the company’s sustainability commitments. For some companies, this means ignoring sustainability issues altogether. Fabrizio Baldassarre and Raffaele Campo, from the department of Economics, Management, and Business Law at the University of Bari Aldo Moro in Bari, Italy, argue that a company’s sustainability communication strategy can be characterized into four different states. Employing a matrix consisting of quadrants and using geologic terms, companies can be described as, “transparent, translucent, dark, and opaque,” based upon their level and honesty of commitment to sustainable operation initiatives. The type(s) of corporate communication is judged and classified into one of these established quadrants as it relates to practices regarding environmental sustainability. The matrix acts the same as a graph where the Y-axis (vertical) represents the company’s commitment to sustainability and the X-axis (horizontal) represents the company’s efforts to appear sustainable.  Here’s an overview of each of the 4 ways companies can communicate about their sustainability efforts.  

Dark Companies:  Companies that fall in this category tend to have a low commitment to sustainability, coupled with a low-profile communication strategy. The “dark” company categorization typically consists of smaller, less experienced companies that might be unaware of potential benefits in utilizing such marketing strategies. “Dark” companies, whether intentionally or not, tend to have an obscured or slanted view of sustainability initiative and marketing strategies. This results in having neither the tools nor motivation to develop any type of sustainable marketing strategy. By calculation, these companies often attempt to be invisible in the green economy. Understanding of environmental sustainability concepts, or lack thereof leads to lost business opportunities. Companies that are categorized as dark in the sustainability marketing strategy matrix must acquire and internally distribute knowledge to gain competitive advantages regarding sustainability initiatives and marketing strategies. Poor knowledge on the topic of sustainability results in poor innovation and raises the potential for the firm to make products that are incompatible with the needs and wants of consumers.   

Opaque Companies: Companies that fall under “opaque” categorization tend to have a low commitment to sustainability. This necessitates a high-profile communication strategy of appearing sustainable. “Opaque companies” are aware of the role a sustainability posture plays in their marketing strategy. They use this to their advantage, through greenwashing or the ill-conceived marketing/public relations strategy employed by companies to make their organization appear more in tune with sustainable concepts and practices. This deceit is accomplished through publicly boasting of positive, (often manufactured) information and achievements the company has made. Shrouding reality behind these boastful professions is used to conceal both conduct and business operations which negate the development of authentic sustainability practices. Opaque companies use sustainability marketing in a superficial way, treating sustainability as something of a passing fad. This strategy affords the “opaque” company short term payoffs such as a fleeting market gain garnered by using announcements of various sustainability initiatives. However, the reputation of any business entity employing these tactics carries tremendous risk. These include expanding or continuing to receive outside investments, media coverage, and employee satisfaction rates. When these greenwashing ploys are ultimately exposed to the public, the results are devastating. Many companies experience loss of consumer loyalty and patronage, constrained business opportunities, and the very real prospect of critical and talented employees departing the organization. The “opaque” company also risks long-term viability. Empty sustainability marketing strategies put the company’s image at risk, with the probability of permanent damage to relationships with both public and private stakeholders. The tactic also includes risks from potential/probable expansion of sustainability laws and regulations that make impact the company moving forward.  

Translucent Companies: Companies that fall under “translucent categorization” are those with a high commitment to being sustainable, yet do not actively or effectively communicate their sustainability initiatives and efforts. These companies often avoid publicly releasing sustainability and social commitment information, because they are either not aware of potential marketing relevance in these initiatives or they feel that sustainability efforts are a moral and ethical cause. Perhaps “translucent companies” see linking sustainability and marketing efforts as a high-risk strategy with the fear of being associated with “greenwashing” companies who create phony sustainability strategies and plans. Many times, “translucent” companies face further potential risk due to their lack of sustainability communication in their marketing platform. Translucent companies who do not publish sustainability initiative information out of fear of being accused of greenwashing run the risk of hindering company development and long-term viability.  

Transparent Companies: Companies that fall under “transparent” categorization have a high commitment to being sustainable, as well as high-profile communication regarding their sustainability practices. These companies realize the importance of and increased public awareness of sustainability, and they embrace and openly profess ethical and moral choices regarding their sustainability marketing strategy. These companies effectively communicate sustainability behaviors and actions all in alignment with the company’s overall vision regarding environmental concerns. This is the gold standard of sustainability marketing strategies which all companies should strive for. “Transparent” companies view sustainability issues as an opportunity and recognize sustainability issues as both positive and profitable endeavors. These companies also gain a competitive advantage through implementation and continued efficiency improvements, waste reductions, and process or technology innovation. “Transparent companies” gain market share with increasing consumer demand for ethically sourced products. Inclusion of all departments in the organization regarding sustainability matters boosts companywide moral and sharpens the focus toward the achievement of sustainability goals. Transparent companies select the most appropriate means of communicating information on their sustainability initiatives and plans then uses various and targeted media (i.e., website, annual report, press release etc.) as the vehicles for both public and private stakeholders to understand sustainability initiatives and actions the company is taking and why.  

Over the last 5 years increased commitments to sustainable practices have taken a strong hold amongst the many companies making Net Zero or Carbon Neutral commitments.  Many of these large organizations have shared that they will place expectations on the supply chain to aid in these efforts.  As organizations begin to look inward toward their commitment to sustainability, it’s important to understand why the organization is engaging and what thoughtful business decisions will need to be adjusted to meet these goals and objectives.  As organizations start to explore these areas and consider commitments to sustainability and sustainability marketing, it’s important to make an honest commitment that is true to the essence of sustainability. It is also imperative to thoughtfully engage stakeholders through intentional marketing about sustainable actions and practices done by the company.  A good first step to integrating sustainable practices within your company is to assess the following questions to ensure sustainable actions being taken are effectively communicated:  

  •  Does your company define sustainability? If so, how is it defined? 
  • Are social, environmental, and philanthropic initiatives and strategies addressed by anyone in the organization? How do these initiatives interact with one another? 
  • Have you determined sustainability strategies and goals within the organization? If so, how are these goals and strategies tied into overall corporate goals and strategies? 
  • Who is accountable for sustainability initiatives, monitoring, and reporting? Additionally, who is empowered to make authoritative decisions regarding adopting sustainable practices and strategies?  
  • Is sustainability a factor considered in the major decision-making processes of the organization?  
  • How is sustainability discussed and coordinated across the organization? Where do employees bring new sustainability ideas and initiatives?  
  • Are all employees educated on the sustainability practices and initiatives implemented across the organization? Can all employees effectively communicate the company views, strategies, and goals regarding sustainability?  
  • Is communicating sustainably goals and initiatives actively pursued by the company a top-priority? Can stakeholders readily find information about the organization’s sustainability goals and initiatives?  
  • What is the CEO’s attitude towards sustainability? Has the CEO messaged their beliefs regarding sustainability? Are these beliefs in line with actions and strategies taken? Have core sustainability plans changed over time? Does the CEO’s relationship with sustainability reflect actions and strategies undertaken by the organization regarding sustainability?  

 

Works Cited: 

Baldassarre, F., & Campo, R. (2016, May 18). Sustainability as a marketing tool: To be or to appear to be? Business Horizons. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0007681316300064.