Executive need to listen

ARTICLE | September 14, 2022 | 4 min read

Is sustainability at odds with good CX?

Consumers want companies to care for the environment, but that can come at the cost of convenience. Here’s how to be green and still offer a great experience.

By Jennifer Alsever, Workflow contributor

Companies today face a growing challenge: to be good for the world and great for customers.

Indeed, pressure from regulators, investors, and society to operate responsibly and provide goods and services that are environmentally sustainable has never been higher. But achieving these goals can’t come at the expense of a top-notch customer experience.

That isn’t easy. Shoppers, for instance, have grown used to the convenience of fast delivery, endless choices, and no-hassle returns. All can come with environmental costs.

“People want businesses to take the lead on various societal issues, including sustainability,” says Jon Picoult, who advises companies on the customer experience as founder of Watermark Consulting. “Now companies struggle with how to become more ecofriendly without any degradation in the customer experience.”

Still, leading companies are finding ways to embrace sustainability and actually improve how customers experience their brand and their products. Technology is often the key, whether it’s by helping provide better information on websites, using digital processes to coordinate repairs or recycling, or retooling product design.

Picoult says the goodwill companies earn when they embrace sustainability is an important part of how customers engage with their brand. But that goodwill—and overall customer satisfaction and loyalty—will be enhanced when they are able to directly make their offerings easier to use, provide better service, quickly solve problems, and improve sustainability at the same time.

For example, easy returns can lessen the disappointment of an ill-chosen item, but there’s an environmental cost: the carbon footprint of back-and-forth shipping and more goods going into landfills when products can’t be resold. Companies can get around that by offering simple returns while seeking to minimize them, for instance, with better product descriptions, better sizing information, or by better personalization to account for individual consumers’ wishes. That reduces the hassle for customers while being more sustainable for the company.

Here are a few ways ways companies can improve sustainability while delighting customers:

Companies can spend a lot of money and time creating eco-friendly products and processes. But if consumers don’t know about them, the efforts will fall flat.

The website of men’s apparel maker Taylor Stitch describes how it responsibly sources the materials for its clothes, shows how many gallons of water is saved through its process, and tallies its carbon footprint. Digitally tracking supply chains—to record details about the source of materials, shipping methods, and resources they use—is key to delivering that kind of information directly to customers.

The company also makes it easy for customers to send in items for repair or replacement if they wear out, reducing waste and saving money for consumers.


Percentage of consumers willing to delay e-commerce deliveries for the sake of improving sustainability

That initiative taps into changing consumer attitudes. A 2020 McKinsey survey found that consumers planned to purchase more durable clothing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and 71% said they planned to keep items they own longer. In addition: more than half of people surveyed said they’re willing to repair their items to make them last longer.

Companies can also use incentives to nudge customers toward sustainable choices. Online thrift store ThredUp offers discounts on shipping if people choose to bundle multiple purchases and ship them together. It also uses location information to direct shoppers to items stored in warehouses closest to them, providing faster deliveries and reducing transportation emissions.

The approach may pay off. As many as 86% of consumers are willing to delay e-commerce deliveries if given an incentive for the sake of improving sustainability, according to a 2022 Consumer Sustainability Survey conducted by software consultants Blue Yonder.

Disposing of products once they’ve outlived their usefulness can be a genuine hassle, but it is an often overlooked part of the customer experience. That’s as true for businesses as it is for households.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machines can last 20 years or more. But for hospitals and imaging companies, properly disposing of the equipment isn’t easy. That’s why Dutch technology giant Royal Philips N.V. decided to help hospitals and healthcare facilities to upgrade or recycle their old machines.

Philips makes the process pretty simple. An account manager uses a digital CRM tool that guides the hospital through the trade-in process, so that disposal or replacement is seamless and hassle-free. Customers can also get details about how Philips will repurpose the machine, aiding the hospital in its own sustainability efforts. The program has led to more loyal customers and repeat business, Philips says.

By 2025, Philips expects to generate 25% of its sales from its refurbished or “circular” products—those that can be repaired, reused, or recycled. “Circular economy is about delivering maximum value to customers and society with minimal material use,” says a Philips spokesperson.

Consumer technology has an even more serious obsolescence problem: It evolves so quickly that new releases are more feature-rich and higher quality than older ones, so many consumers discard perfectly good devices to get the latest bells and whistles—and the best available experience.

Some tech makers try to avoid this wastefulness by future-proofing their products. Headphone maker Skullcandy, for instance, designs its wireless headphones with SkullIQ technology that includes extra hardware and functionality that can be turned on remotely with future software updates. As a result, customers get the latest capabilities without having to discard and replace their old equipment.

“We want to make our devices last longer, not just physically, but we want them to be relevant longer, too,” says Nelson Fortiér, Skullcandy’s senior director of brand and product marketing. “We’ve had to retool how we think and to re-engineer our customer experience for sustainability.”

Addressing the competing priorities of sustainability and great customer experience is not easy, but those that do are more likely to develop fruitful long-term relationships with their customers.

“When designing products and services,” says Picoult, “take into account the interests of not just today’s customers, but also tomorrow’s, and even the next generation’s customers.”

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For more than two decades, Jennifer Alsever has contributed to a wide variety of national publications, including Fortune Magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Fast Company.