Leveraging sustainability storytelling to build brand affinity with Suzanne Shelton
In this lively interview with Lincoln, Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group shares why Americans are more concerned about ocean plastics than climate change and what companies focused on decarbonization should do to build brand affinity and market share. Tune in for insights on how to make your sustainability or decarbonization initiatives more understandable and appealing.
Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO of the Shelton Group, helps clean businesses speak sustainability. In her words, Shelton Group “translates the good you do for people and the planet into business success.” As a leading sustainability marketer, she helps businesses grow by making ESG initiatives understandable and attracting loyal, environmentally conscious consumers. In this lively interview with host Lincoln Payton, she explains why Americans are more concerned about ocean plastics than climate change and what companies focused on decarbonization should do to build brand affinity and market share.
Tune in for insights on how to make your sustainability or decarbonization initiatives more understandable and appealing.
- The important role transparency and storytelling plays in helping more of the American public understand and care about decarbonization
- Why most Americans don’t understand the meaning of net zero or carbon neutral
- Why every company should be providing data-driven evidence of their decarbonization efforts & demanding similar of their suppliers
Dana Dohse: On this episode of the Decarbonization Race.
Suzanne Shelton: Driving brand preference, driving sales, driving investor outcomes, and attracting and retaining the best and brightest employees. Those are four outcomes we can drive through ESG communication.
Dana Dohse: Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO at Shelton Group, joins host Lincoln Payton for discussion on the real payoff corporations see, when they run with intention towards sustainability goals. From her 31 years leading Shelton Group, Suzanne has decades worth of research and statistics to share, supporting the why behind some of the most successful corporations’ initiatives, and exactly how the best of the best are going beyond just checking the boxes. Ready to lead the sustainability pack? This is the Decarbonization Race.
Lincoln Payton: Suzanne, we’re delighted to have you.
Suzanne Shelton: I’m so glad to be here. Looking forward to the conversation.
Lincoln Payton: Absolutely, me too. So first of all, where in the world are you today chatting from?
Suzanne Shelton: I’m in Knoxville, Tennessee, and people screw that up all the time. I get introduced by clients that we’ve had as clients for a long time as, “oh, this is Suzanne and she’s with our agency in Nashville, Tennessee.” So, nope, there are other cities in Tennessee besides Memphis and Nashville, and I’m in Knoxville.
Lincoln Payton: And a very beautiful part of the world, I can tell that from seeing you there. It’s fantastic and it’s impressive what you’re doing today, and it’s an important lever in moving the world because marketing communications, getting the word out and getting it out right is increasingly important. Career-wise, how did you gravitate to this energy environmental space, which of course is fashionable and vogue these days, but wasn’t always, and you were there before.
Suzanne Shelton: It’s a combination, Lincoln, like so many things of some planning and strategy, and then just dumb luck. I started this company when I was 23 and figured out quickly that there weren’t a lot of VPs of marketing that wanted to listen to what some 23-year-old kid had to say about how to do their marketing. So I figured out, if we knew something about some industries, then at least we came in sounding smart and with a point of view. And so that’s kinda how we got started in my twenties is, okay, well we knew some stuff about healthcare, we knew some stuff about higher education.
And then in ‘96, ‘97, utility deregulation was part of the national conversation. And somebody actually turned me onto that and said, “hey, you ought to look into this,” and I did, and I thought, “oh wow, utilities are going to have to compete. They’ve never had to do that before, which means they’re going to need communications. Maybe we ought to go learn about this.” So I called up a very small local utility here in the hills of Tennessee and said, “we’d like to learn your industry and we’ll work at cost if you’ll just let us get in and start working.” And that guy said, “well, you know what? We do a lot of our work cooperatively with TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the big power producer in this area.”
Lincoln Payton: Yes, indeed.
And so he made introductions for me. Long story short, we got into the electric utility space and for me that was like taking the red pill in The Matrix or going down Alice’s rabbit hole, because I had no idea, like most Americans, according to our ongoing surveying, I had no idea at the time 60% of our electricity came from burning coal. Doesn’t that sound so medieval? And we’re still doing it, not at 60%, but we’re still doing it. It’s like, what? So once I understood, oh wow, we’re burning coal to make power and that is causing climate change, and this is really bad because we’re going to screw up where we live, but we have to have [power] to live. What will we do? That’s the thorny, as they would say in Boston, wicked problem that I love. And so we began working pretty prolifically with utilities to help market their energy efficiency programs and renewable energy programs, and even in some cases, rebrand as forward thinking entities that want to do the right thing for the planet.
Lincoln Payton: As you rightly said, there’s still a relatively small percentage of the man in the street who understands exactly the equation of energy production, energy usage, the carbon footprint thereof; going back 25 years, even less so. So how easy was it to persuade some of those big players going through deregulation, and those of us that remember that deregulation was a very changing, destabilizing time for a lot of the industry? How easy was it to get them back then to say, this is important, you need to get this message out? Why would they have cared about… “hey guys, we are trying to move in a cleaner direction?”
Suzanne Shelton: Well, and you were asking the same question that we heard over and over again from average Americans in focus groups, late ‘90s, early 2000s when we teed up energy efficiency programs. Repeatedly, we would hear from Americans, “wait, the energy company wants me to use less of the product they sell that makes them money? Like, why would they do that?” And as you probably know, depending on the location, utilities were made by their public utility commissions to put energy efficiency programs in place. The idea was, hey, we can manage demand and avoid building more power plants if we can actually just use less of this stuff. And so there have been these very complicated schemes created whereby utilities actually get paid for energy efficiency.
And so utilities began collecting money from their customers, mostly unbeknownst to their customers. There are these really weird sounding fees that go on every utility bill that don’t sound like what they are at all. And so utilities were collecting millions of dollars from their customers and using those to stand up these energy efficiency programs. And the general scheme is we’re going to ascribe X amount of kilowatt savings for every high efficiency heat and air unit, or for every high efficiency water heater. So those savings get ascribed. And if we can get rebates out there and motivate people to do those things, then we’ll just add up the savings and go back to our utility commission and say, “yes, we achieved those savings.”
So what we’ve heard from consumers is a combination of three things. About half of us go, “you know what, I don’t need energy efficiency. My home is already energy efficient.” Which is largely false. Unless we have a recently built, net zero energy or net zero energy-ready home, our homes are not very energy efficient. Our building codes have not kept up largely. So that’s problem number one.
Then problem number two is that of the Americans that say they’ve actually done a few things to be more energy efficient, they haven’t seen their utility bills go down. And that is the primary message that most utilities put out there is “save energy and save money.” And so for those people that say, you know what? I’ve done a few things. I haven’t seen my utility bills go down. They’re like, “screw it, I’m not going to participate anymore.”
And then you have, and frankly the vast majority of us, like 80% of us go, “you know what? I don’t think I actually know what to do to be more energy efficient.” So there’s a way in which, for utilities and other manufacturers in the energy efficient product space, if they understand that and understand, “well we’ve got these hurdles to get over that people don’t think they need it, they don’t think it works or they don’t know what to do,” and you understand that and now you know how to get inside of that and help them see, “oh, maybe I do need it,” and “oh, here is a formula for what to do,” then you can actually move the market forward.
And, we’ve had a lot of success linking with putting behavior change campaigns out there that do in fact get Americans to take action. I can preview slightly, we’ve got another one coming out this fall for an organization around air sealing and weather stripping, which is like the last thing any of us wants to do on a Saturday. So we’re trying to overcome that.
Lincoln Payton: Actions like that. And you said something that resonates with me. Clearly I’m coming from the measurement and accounting and transparency angle here a little bit in my background, but when the utility space is marketing and you are helping them communicate those messages to the man in the street, how much still is that marketing based around those two axes of price, which you mentioned, which every consumer cares about primarily, and security of supply? All of us want the lights to come on when we need them. We want the hospital to be powered up. We want the workplace to be warm. How much is there in appreciation over the time you’ve been doing this, that third dimension, the carbon element of it, is important?
Suzanne Shelton: The thing that will actually motivate someone to make energy efficient improvements to their home and take action is either to increase the comfort of their home. So if they can feel drafts coming in, then they want to fix that, particularly when a new baby arrives in the home or like an aging parent or mother-in-law comes into the home, like, now there’s an increased awareness of all the deficiencies and all the draftiness, and I don’t want people to get sick. So comfort.
Health, we were concerned about health and the air we’re breathing before Covid. And then as you might imagine, there’s been quite a hockey stick on the other side of Covid.
And then the third new one, we’ve actually got a report coming out on this is safety and security through covid, through political vitriol, we feel less safe than we ever have before. And so safety is also defined as indoor air quality, comfort. Like, I want my home to be a safe haven. So if we’re going to get people to take action, to be more energy efficient and frankly to decarbonize, it ain’t about decarbonization and it’s really not about price, it’s about these other drivers.
Lincoln Payton: Marvelous message because it’s practical and you’ve been at the tip of the sword trying to change those minds and perceptions. So that’s where you started off on the utility space. Please give us a little bit of background about what Shelton Group is now.
Suzanne Shelton: So in the late 90’s, we started working with utilities. And in 2005, we frankly went through a process like many of our clients will go through, and that will help facilitate with our clients sometimes. What is the best value we can bring when we’re all 80 and we look back? What is it we can create that makes us go, wow, my time here on planet Earth was worthwhile? And as we looked at all the different sectors we had experience in and different audiences we had reached on behalf of our clients, the more we looked at it, the more we could see that energy space was interesting, juicy, problematic. We decided in 2005 to plant our flag as the smartest kids in the room about how to market energy or environmental products, issues, causes, et cetera. And I don’t know if you remember, but in 2008 is when the corporate green movement really started in earnest with the GE Ecomagination campaign.
Lincoln Payton: Yes.
Suzanne Shelton: And a lot of corporate America went, oh, GE, it was their entire brand spent, went towards that ecomagination campaign and it showed a lot of other corporates that, oh, we can get out and talk about what we’re doing for the planet and get credit for it. Like, we can position our brand favorably, we can drive sales, we can attract employees, so let’s go do that. So we were in front of that. And as you know, since 2008, this has been a roller coaster of initially companies jumping in and frankly doing a lot of greenwashing initially, and then pulling back the reins to go, “oh, oh, we can’t just talk about it. We have to do some stuff. And it can’t just be product based. It actually has to look at our supply chain, our manufacturing, transportation, end of life. There’s this whole thing we’ve got to look at and commit to and take action on before we can get out and talk about it.”
Lincoln Payton: So talking about the corporate world, talking about brand, you mentioned both those worlds, today, does the consumer care? Very interesting revelation I thought you made on the utility space. For a lot of people in the industry, we are drinking our own Kool-Aid here, which is, “carbon is important, this is critical, this is what we have to change.” And to understand clearly that a lot of utility clients in America are focused on that security of supply cost element of things. Does the consumer now from the corporate brand side of things, does he care about ESG statements?
Suzanne Shelton: In late 2020, early 2021, we’ve put out a study called “Good Company” and the idea there was to really get our heads around, well if people are saying they’re punishing and rewarding companies based on what they’re doing for people on the planet, let’s unpack, how do they see that? So we asked an open ended question, “name three good companies,” and it’s up to you to decide what good is. And we saw companies pop to the top, like Amazon, Walmart, it was not a bunch of greeny green brands. It was very mainstream traditional corporates.
What’s more interesting though, is the follow-up question, which was, “okay, why?” Again, open ended. And when we code all those answers, not surprisingly, if you’re a marketer at all, oh, they have a great product and they have great customer service, comes out on top, right? But when you look at ESG-related answers, things like, they treat their people well, they have good values, they’ve got a good D&I program, they’re good to the planet. If you put that in an ESG bucket, it’s the number three reason to consider a company good.
Now, flip side, we also asked, “name three bad companies and it’s up to you to decide what bad is.” And then we followed that up with, okay, why? So when you get into the why on the bad companies, ESG is the number one reason to consider a company bad.
So if you have your ESG house in order, it’s helpful. It’s in the top three in terms of driving brand favorability and attractiveness and positioning yourselves well. But oh my gosh, if you don’t have your ESG house in order, if you’re deemed to be a bad actor, that’s bad for you because 26% of us are actually actively exhibiting this behavior of buying from what we perceive to be the good actors. So here is one of the fundamental challenges for corporate America and the soapbox that I’m on lately and will stay on for quite some time I think.
What Americans are most concerned about when you ask them, “okay, well what does a company have to do to be considered good in your mind?” Far and away, the number one and number two thing that a company has to do is treat its employees well. Treat them well, pay them well. So this is the Walmart story. The reason why is they’re on the good list because of all that they’re doing for the environment. People are aware of that, but they’re on the bad list because of the perceptions people have about how Walmart treats it employees. Walmart’s done a lot of work to try to change that perception and it’s like they’re stuck with a hangover they can’t quite get over. It’s going to take time. So employees, employees, employees.
So we are here to talk about decarbonization and we are here to talk about the existential threat of, oh my God, if we don’t fix climate change, then it doesn’t really matter what happens for people because we’re all screwed, right? But the thing is, for the vast majority of Americans, that’s a secondary issue. The primary issue is how are you treating people? But then when we get into the environmental side of things, okay, well let’s set social aside now, what do companies need to be doing from an environmental perspective to be seen as good? Number one answer is make recyclable products and use recycled content as number one and number two. Then there’s some stuff about, oh, make your products in the USA.
And then there’s some stuff about getting rid of chemical content… nothing about reducing greenhouse gas emissions! Because consumers are wildly unaware of the 14 different environmental issues that we test on a regular basis to ask how nervous or concerned are people about these issues? Like on a scale of one to 10, over 70% of us give ourselves a 10 on plastics in the ocean, meaning I am so worried, I’m completely freaked out about plastics in the ocean. Less than that, give ourselves a 10 on climate change. Let me show you this. Still the number two answer, but it’s like 10 points lower than plastics in the ocean. So plastics in the ocean are the hot button for a lot of reasons. Number one, we see the images on social media of wildlife strangled in plastic.
Lincoln Payton: Very graphic, very graphic image.
Suzanne Shelton: Gosh. So emotionally evocative, we just instantly look at that and go, “oh, it shouldn’t be, I have to do something.” But the other thing, Lincoln, is when any of us looks at those pictures, there is some part of us, maybe it’s totally unconscious, but there’s some part of us that goes, “oh my G-d, that could be my six pack ring. That could be my straw, that could be my plastic bag. Now I’m an accomplice to the crime.” And so that makes it deeply, deeply personal. So we feel so freaked out about plastics in the ocean because there’s a lot of guilt associated with that. And we know that that plastic that’s harming that animal is also making our life more convenient and we feel really crappy about that.
Lincoln Payton: So here’s a question for you. In your professional capacity, how does the climate change industry and concerned personas do a better job of personalizing and getting that messaging, not to replace or supplant the ocean, but how do we make it clear that well actually it is being kind to your fellow man, if you can fix the climate issue, and it is improving drastically things, if you can fix these issues? How do we as an industry, and then how do you make that more tactical? The many people you are advising and giving guidance to, how do you actually tell them to do that, which is get those points over as well, especially if you’re doing a good job of it?
Suzanne Shelton: We have some brand new data in from the field. Every few years we test what we call buzzwords. So things like carbon footprint, green, sustainability, words that we’re using to see how do these resonate. And just for illustration purposes, net zero, 34% of Americans say, “I understand it.” On a scale of one to 10, they give themselves an 8, 9, or 10. 34% say, I understand this, so not bad, but 35% give themselves a zero to four, meaning I have no idea what it means. By contrast, recyclable 71% say they understand it and only 2% say they have no idea what it means. So we understand the concept of recyclable in a way that we just don’t understand net zero and carbon neutral doesn’t fare much better.
So thing one is people don’t get it. They don’t understand what we mean by net zero and carbon neutral. So I think the messaging from corporate America over and over and over again needs to be a, to help everybody get clear that when we’re talking about reducing carbon footprints, we’re talking about protecting the planet. We are talking about either using less energy or using cleaner energy. That’s what we’re talking about. So make sure everybody understands that message. Thing one. And then thing two, every company in America should be talking about how they’re taking one for the team. Every company in America should basically be saying, you know what? We get it, that if we’re going to preserve our home planet, we’ve got to use cleaner energy and less energy. We understand it. And so that’s what we’re doing as a company.
Dana Dohse: Like Suzanne mentioned, it’s important that corporations explain their efforts in terms that their audience understands. In order to do that, you have to tell a data story around your ESG reporting. It’s so much more than just showing them the numbers. Suzanne advises to get creative and put intention around how you show the data in a visual way. And she says to always err on the side of transparency. Back up your data with a narrative that transparently lays out your company’s ESG journey and reports on where your company is today, not just where you think it should be or aim to be in 20 years’ time. For more tips from Suzanne, you can check out her blog at the link in their show notes.
Lincoln Payton: Suzanne, with your knowledge base and the information that you get in your experience, is that a message that would resonate in the consumer side of things, which is we are a good corporate citizen, first off, and the action we are taking, in addition to other actions in the ESG space is to use more renewable energy? To measure it, to prove it, to show it. And that’s us taking it for the planet and being the responsible corporate citizen. Is that something that you think will resonate?
Suzanne Shelton: Yep, absolutely. Renewable energy used to be the number two answer, right behind make products that are recyclable. So it has fallen off a little bit. But I don’t think that’s because people don’t love it; I think it’s because they become more aware of the plastics issue. And so they’re more freaked out about that. But for the most part, the average American goes, clean is good, solar is good, wind is good. The sun comes up every day, why wouldn’t we make energy from that? The wind blows sometimes. Why wouldn’t we make energy from that? It seems kinda like a no-brainer. And it’s easy for them to understand. They can picture a solar panel, they can picture a windmill. So this is not some weird thing like greenhouse gas emissions. How do I picture that? What is that? Right? But I know what you’re talking about when you’re talking about clean energy and renewable energy. So I think for most of us, that’s a winning story.
Lincoln Payton: How relevant is it for the man in the street to have very clear messaging around these topics? So there’s the imagery you mentioned, yeah, a wind farm, a solar plant, we can all understand that. Use more renewable energy, we can all understand that. But there has been a lot of vague vocabulary. There has been a lot of claims and no backup and no follow-up. How is the consumer feeling about these statements and what could be done better?
Suzanne Shelton: This one is trickier because the average American kinda doesn’t know how to sniff out greenwashing just yet. We do ask a series of questions related to this, like, “what if you found out your favorite brand who had been advertising itself as green was suddenly slapped with a fine for polluting a nearby river? What would you do? Would you stop buying their product? Would you tell your friends and family to stop buying the product? Or would you keep buying the product?” And about a third go, “eh, I’d keep buying the product.” About a third say, “I would just stop,” and about a third say, “I would tell my friends and family to stop too.” So you could look at that and go, wow, two thirds would stop, and some of those folks would actually proselytize to other people to stop because they would be outraged, like,” you sold me this bill of goods. But the reality maps out that way.” Let’s look at the Volkswagen emission scandal. That was very public.
Lincoln Payton: Yes.
Suzanne Shelton: I don’t actually think their sales have gone down. I happen to drive a Volkswagen Jetta at the time that I bought because of their clean diesel claims, and so I won’t buy a Volkswagen again. But it doesn’t appear to me that most of my fellow Americans feel the same way. So it is really difficult to get people to really choose differently. About 17% of us we see consistently can give examples of when they’ve put their values where their wallets are, they’ve put their money where their mouth is. And it’s typically the easy ones to avoid because there are easy other options. Like, oh, “well I hate BP because the oil spill, so I’ll go to Shell instead.” So if there’s another option, I can easily shut out the bad actor. But if there’s not another good option, it’s harder to do that.
Why this is such a gray area is, it gets into behavioral economics. It gets into this notion of social proof and that I look to others to see how do we behave? How are we going to handle this? And so I think if you see a lot of people branding a company as a pariah, like, “my gosh, they are such liars. They’ve been taking us all for a ride. They’ve been promising us this thing that’s not true.” And you get enough people to go, “ew, why would you buy from them then?” Then we’ll see people get away. But if it’s not that big of a toxic social issue, I don’t think companies will see incredible harm to their profits. And I hate like hell saying that. I want to be able to say, yes, consumers are going to deselect you and some will, but I don’t think it’ll be enough for corporate America to pay attention.
Lincoln Payton: So it really needs to rise to that almost peer pressure, talking point level for people to be…
Suzanne Shelton: Peer is the right word.
Lincoln Payton: Very interesting. So going now to you and Shelton Group, when you’re advising corporates on their brand positioning, is there a menu of you can do, the thin end of the wedge, which is position yourself this way? How do you approach that?
So it really does break down into a series of steps. Step one is you have to do all the things to be credible. So you have to take care of your employees. And I hate to say check the box, but you have to check all the boxes that the SEC is asking for. You have to measure your greenhouse gas emissions, Scope 1, Scope 2, and yes, Scope 3. You need to measure these, you need to get a handle on them, you need to set a roadmap for reducing all of them. You need to check these boxes.
But then there needs to be an exercise, and this is a lot of the work that my company does to look at, okay, what does the market most care about, need from you, expect from you compared to what are your competitors saying and doing? And then looking at what are you already doing or what are you capable of doing? And then that’s where you need to point your flag from a messaging standpoint.
And I’m proud to say having done this for 16 years, that sometimes messaging can actually drive strategy. So we’ve had some clients that yes, they’re checking all the boxes, but we’ve been able to go to them and say, “you know what, if we could say this, if we could plant our flag here, man, that would really be differentiating. It would really pop for your consumer. So can we go make that true?” And we’ve had some clients go, “yeah, this is not a fast process, right? It can take two or three years to get someone to go, ‘okay, I see how that might really pay off from a brand positioning standpoint. I see how we could do some innovation around that and that could pay off from a product sales standpoint.'”
Okay. So that’s really the magic redirect. Do all the stuff to be credible and then figure out where can you plant your flag that’ll be differentiating and it will allow you to drive brand value in sales? And then once you’ve figured out what that thing is, then you build a story around it with a key message, a key story, pillars, and proof points, you have to have the proof points, not every consumer’s going to go look for them, but you have to have them so that you’re credible. And then you’ve got to get that story out there on a steady basis.
We unfortunately see a lot of corporate clients very focused on their ESG report. They spend a lot of money, a lot of time on that, and we do a lot of reporting, but they approach it as if it’s the end as opposed to a means to the end.
The outcomes that we are trying to drive through communicating about ESG, it is driving brand preference, driving sales, driving investor outcomes, and attracting and retaining the best and brightest employees. Those are four outcomes we can drive through ESG communications. So if you do it right, you’ve already baked in six months worth of social posts. You’ve baked in things that can easily be pulled out for byline articles and op-eds. You’ve baked in things you can get on stages and talk about. You’ve baked in things that can be pulled out and made into a white paper, right? So think about the report holistically for multiple audiences and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Lincoln Payton: So I’m going to push back on one thing you said there and see what you think because a lot of the senior management who are actually responsible for signing off on the disclosures that we talk to are very concerned about Scope 3 because it’s so nebulous, it’s so interpretive, qualitative, there isn’t good quality data out there to support it. So frankly, a lot of them that we are talking to are saying, “yep, Scope 2 and Scope 1, we are happy. And by the way, Lincoln would like to have something we can really rely on. But Scope 3, we’re going to talk about it, but we’re not going to do it right now because it’s so nebulous,” and it goes to your point of upside is good, but downside is really bad. The risk of reporting something that is so nebulous, not good quality data is higher than the benefit of doing it right now. How are you seeing that?
Suzanne Shelton: Here’s what I’m seeing. I agree with you, it’s totally nebulous. There’s a lot to be sorted out. I think I have faith that we will find the frameworks, we will get it sorted out. We’ll find the common language. 15 years ago we weren’t measuring Scope 1 and Scope 2, we would’ve heard the same thing.
But the power is this: in the last year alone, I’ve had two small suppliers, two big consumer package goods companies call up., and I’m not kidding you, literally say, “hey, we signed this contract with XYZ giant company who we’re a supplier to, and it says in here that we have to achieve a certain score on something called CDP and something called EcoVadis. And we don’t know what that is and we’re supposed to have this done in like two years. Can you help us?” And this isn’t frankly what Shelton Group does. We’re a communications company, but we’ve had two companies come to us and go, “we literally don’t know what this is.” So now these are two companies of many that are going to go start unpacking their emissions so they can report to CDP and begin uploading data into EcoVadis. So the power is the big companies can go to their supply chains and make them do stuff that they wouldn’t do otherwise. And that gets us all better.
Lincoln Payton: And the good thing is supply chains and client bases of larger entities that are doing a very precise job on their Scope 1 and Scope 2, and then asking their supply chain and clients to do the same thing actually takes care of Scope 3 for everybody. So everything starts moving that way. Phenomenal.
Suzanne Shelton: Exactly. So we think that’s awesome and we think there’s a lot of great power in that, and then there’s great storytelling in it because those big brands can put out in social media, “hey, we’re working with our suppliers to reduce their impact on the planet, and we’ve now got 200 suppliers that are doing things they weren’t doing before,” but as the big brand, you could take credit for that. Walmart certainly does. This has been the Walmart playbook for 15 years.
Lincoln Payton: We see the same thing at Cleartrace, which is the major clients we are working for are requiring suppliers to show their high-standard, high-quality, data-backed information. If you look forwards another five years, which is a long time in today’s fast moving space, what’s different to where we are right now? What’s different for the consumer? What’s different for the brand perception focus?
Suzanne Shelton: I see a couple things in actual environmental impacts, actual devastation because of climate change, is going to be even more in our faces than it is right now. And so I think most consumers in the developed world will now see the connection between what companies do and what’s happening to our environment. Remember, the biggest thing about climate change is it impacts people, and remember that we care the most about people. We care about our planet, but there is a way in which most of us in the developed world can go, “I’m going to be okay,” but the more we see lower-income countries wiped out because of sea level rise, and the more we see climate migration happening and the starvation and the pain and the suffering, the more we are going to go, “okay, companies and governments must all fix this. We must all do something.”
Now, again, not all of us, but the majority of us will feel that way, and so frankly, doing the right thing for people on the planet is going to be table stakes. It is something today that can be used as a lever for those four outcomes I talked about earlier, but I think five years from now, it’s going to be table stakes. We see Gen Z doing things that we didn’t see millennials do, and we certainly didn’t see Gen X do. They are leapfrogging over transitional behaviors, right to really stark behaviors because of climate change. For instance, skipping past vegetarianism straight to veganism because it’s better for the planet or skipping past buying an EV to just not driving.
Lincoln Payton: Suzanne, your data suggests that as the generations rotate, frankly, and Gen Z and the millennials come more and more the establishment and, frankly, previous generations reducing percentage of relevance. That becomes stronger.
Suzanne Shelton: Absolutely.
Lincoln Payton: You seem very focused and driven on what you do. Fantastically impressive and energizing. How do you spend your time when you’re not doing Shelton Group work?
Suzanne Shelton: I’m the mom of an 11-year-old, which is my most important job. And honestly, that’s the reason for the passion behind this, Lincoln. I saw something in a Fortune Brainstorm Green event, while my daughter was like three or four. Steven Chu used to be the head of the Department of Energy in the Obama Administration. He was on the stage on a panel, and the question was around, this was still when we were talking about avoiding the two degree increase in global temperatures. And Steven Chu, who’s also a very positive energized guy, he slumped in his chair and said, “every model we look at says there’s no avoiding an increase in 2 degrees of temperature [rise].” He just looked so defeated. And again, at the time I was the mom of a five year old, but it just struck some mama bear thing in me that went, “no, no, no, no, no, no. We have to avoid it.”
And so, I was already on this train and doing this work, but there’s a way in which I got more deeply motivated and had to make a decision. And like, I can curl into a fetal position and just accept that we’re doomed, or I could come out swinging every day and work through companies to try to go do the right thing. We’re a tiny actor compared to all that’s out there. But I think what we do is really important and I think it’s important personally for me to keep up the optimism and the energy and the drive towards it.
Lincoln Payton: Wonderful to talk to you. Really enjoyable. Congratulations on what you’ve done. And it’s interesting for me because as I say, we are coming from a very technical, very granular energy measurement, transparency point of view. But to hear how you talk about what the man in the street, what the brand protagonist cares about and actually what resonates from a statistical point of view is very telling for all of us in this space, even people like us, because it is the dog, not the tail. And let’s be honest, the economy, the drive of brands, of major corporations, private sector moving things, is what’s going to move things in the next couple of years. Suzanne, lovely to talk to you. Genuinely really enjoyed it.
Suzanne Shelton: Thank you. Me too.
Dana Dohse: Thank you for joining us on the Decarbonization Race. For more resources to help you to lead the pack in the most important race of our lifetime, visit cleartrace.io/podcast.