Sept. 26, San Jose, Calif. -- For pros working to brand themselves as green, it’s important to remember that sustainability cannot only be skin deep. The best brands are those in which sustainability is part of the company’s fabric and mission, according to panelists during a workshop at West Coast Green.

“What I think the great sustainability brands have done is build themselves from the inside out with new measures,” said Pam Van Orden, president of Enlightened Brand, who offered insights alongside KoAnn Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media, and moderator Celia Canfield, principal at Eco Vertex.

Organizations such as Aveda and Whole Foods are examples of firms that have long reputations for making sustainability a part of everyday operations, with missions that go far beyond green or organic product offerings to areas like employee benefits, community contributions, power generation, education, and more. Wal-Mart is a more recent convert, but one whose program has already proven to shift the thinking of its employees and customers.

“People are increasingly looking at what a company stands for,” Canfield said.

And that includes potential employees. In a 2008 Marlin study on Attitudes of the American Workforce, 77% of respondents said working for a green employer is important. Nine out of 10 MBAs want to work for sustainable companies, Canfield also cited.

To retain employees looking for green strategies, Canfield offered the following recommendations from human capital consultancy Bright Green Talent:
* Integrate sustainability into the company’s mission and values
* Offer green products and services
* Utilize green building and practices
* Have a green transport policy
* Incorporate employee programs
* Sponsor community events

Companies concerned about how such programs can impact the bottom line should take note of the many organizations whose sustainability efforts have brought increased returns via improved worker productivity, lower turnover, and increased customer loyalty, to name a few.

Van Orden gave the example of Burgerville, a fast-food chain in the Pacific Northwest. The company’s mission to “Serve with Love” includes using all local, seasonal ingredients, having close relationships with its rancher-suppliers, recycling and composting 85% of waste, relying solely on wind power, and providing healthcare to employees working more than 20 hours a week. The result? A happier staff that has led to lowered turnover (50% compared to 300% for the rest of the fast-food industry) and therefore an elimination of recruitment expenses, as well as a storytelling and restaurant experience that has allowed for elimination of its traditional advertising expenditures.

Even more appealing: Though the company incurs higher overhead to implement this mission, the practices are paying for themselves and are generating a 4% return.

Core values such as these also may drive customers to your door. A survey by MindClick indicates that 66% of consumers think businesses need to change, the panel reported.

According to another study, conducted by Cohn & Wolfe, the company values that drive consumers to make green purchases include:
* They are considered honest and trustworthy
* They make higher quality products
* They make safety  a priority
* They are active in pollution and waste reduction
* They are connected to their community
* They have a green vision and stated mission

Looking at marketing from another angle, MindClick reports that the terms that make the most impact in consumer marketing are:
* Reduce, reuse, recycle
* Environmentally friendly
* Eco-friendly
* Organic
* Clean
* Good for the environment
* Hybrid

Those terms that have the least impact:
* Biodynamics
* Carbon neutral
* Certified
* Sustainable
* Climate change
* Global warming

Still, each company must determine what it means to be sustainable from its individual marketing standpoint. “I believe building a good brand is understanding your customer’s life and where your brand fits into it,” said Van Orden.

Digging deeper into your company’s core values also may be essential to remaining above the marketing hype that is making many consumers wary. As one audience member, a national builder who recently put out his first sustainability report, put it, you can’t just talk the talk in this unforgiving industry. “If you’re not walking the walk, you’ll be outed right away.”

Indeed, branding will continue to take on greener meaning, said Skrzyniarz. It’s no longer about what you say but about who you are and how you do it. And soon, she predicted, green will become a competitive requirement.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Jose, CA.