What Cutting Down Trees Taught Me About Marketing Sustainable Business

June was B The Change in Our Communities month and B Corp employees all over the country are shedding their office attire, strapping on their sneakers and setting out to make positive change.

To join the fun, we teamed up with fellow B Corp Savenia Labs to Tidy the Trails here in Silver Spring. Jim, our guide from Montgomery Parks, led us down the Northwest Branch of the Rachel Carson Greenway Trail and showed us the section we’d be working on. The trail was designed to run alongside a creek with a cozy buffer of greenery, but erosion had eaten away at the buffer so that the trail shared the creek’s precarious edge.

Our job was to create a detour so that local residents could to enjoy the trail without risking a 10-foot fall. Though the task initially appeared unlike my usual duties, by the end of the project I was convinced that creating a new trail is a lot like marketing.

Just like those who market sustainable products and services set out to encourage new behaviors in consumers, we set out to encourage locals to change their behaviors and follow a new path. Here’s what our day on the trails taught me about making change happen:

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1. Convenience is key

photo 3In May we tried for A Day Without Waste and found more sustainable behaviors to be [almost universally] less convenient. Everyone knows that producing high volumes of waste is harmful to the environment, but not everyone can muster the motivation needed to change their behavior.

The trail presented a similar predicament — walking along the creek was convenient and easy and an established habit. Though the threat of falling loomed, it was unlikely that anyone would take a different route without some convincing.

To encourage use of the detour we laid all of the debris we cleared on the old trail. By the time we were done, it was invisible under branches, logs, stumps and leaves. The vague threat of possible harm wasn’t taken seriously, but the inconvenience of fighting through a huge pile of debris would be more than compelling enough to get hikers to change routes.

In marketing, we often try to steer people in new directions by making new choices appealing but it’s also important to address the old choices. If buying the non-sustainable version of a product that you offer generates 100 tons of carbon emissions per year, let people know in ways that are meaningful to them.

Convincing people to choose the path of sustainability requires efforts from the public and private sectors. Businesses must create convenient sustainable options, and the government must encourage their adoption through a combination of putative measures and incentives. Together, they can help guarantee that the “good” path is also easy to see and easy to choose.

2. About-facing isn’t likely

Jim encouraged me to blunt the 90° angle where the detour and the trail met so that instead of a sharp corner, they joined in a gentle curve. I encourage you to adopt a similar technique to build consumer trust using your mission.

It’s unlikely that a consumer will about-face and choose your product over their old favorite out of the blue, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t know a little more about what makes your company different. Look for opportunities to tell your story. When customers understand how your company lives your mission, they’re more likely to trust your product claims and engage with you. When you walk the talk, they’ll keep coming back for more.

3. Use the right tools for the job 

I was really surprised by how quickly we were able to trim back intrusive greenery, fell shrubs and re-grade tread with our tools. On the trail, the loppers, the McLeod, the Pulaski Axe and the pick mattock each had a specific job and each did its job well.
The world of marketing is full of great tools, but the best tools for you will depend on what you’re trying to accomplish. To get the most out of the time, money and energy you invest, develop a clear strategy then choose your tools carefully.

4. Nothing beats experience

photo 1We all knew from the start that we were not experts in trail re-routing, so we had no hesitations asking Jim which tools to use, which plants had to go and what to do with one VERY stubborn root.
Marketing is a vast discipline requiring several different skill sets. If you’re attempting something new,  get input from those who have done it before. That could mean scouring the internet for relevant advice, bringing on an expert consultant, reading a book or talking to a more experienced colleague to hash out your ideas.

It’s especially important for those marketing social enterprises, B Corps and other mission-driven companies to seek out expertise because there aren’t yet established methods of communicating the unique value that these business models bring. By exploring the opinions and approaches out there, you’ll be better prepared to address changes in this swiftly growing sector.

In the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, the speaker spends four stanzas debating which of two identical paths he should take. We don’t want consumers (or hikers) mired in indecision like that – we want to make it very obvious which route is best.

Do you have any preferred strategies or tactics for encouraging behavior change? Share them with me in the comments below!

Alison was RoundPeg's content marketing specialist though November 2016. We are sure she still spends her days seeking inspiration, writing inspired content, then trying to inspire other people to read it! When she isn't trying to save the world by the might of her pen, she hangs out with her dog Wall-E, reads contemporary literature and eats an impressive amount of chocolate.
  • Rick Johnston

    Nice article. Obviously, multiple lessens learned. Minimizing waste does take some effort but there many strategies for at least making it easier. Thanks for the marketing analogy. User experience is all about making the paths clear.

    • Alison

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Rick. Couldn’t agree more re: user experience. The most successful UX designs cut the clutter and achieve clarity.

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