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The Opportunity for Trade Groups to Address Sustainability and Social Issues

Sheila Mclean
, Tue, 11/14/2017

When it comes to trusting business to have a positive impact on society, we just don’t.  More consumers now say that they have punished companies for their behavior than rewarded them (Nielsen).

Millennial purchasing power and the workforce demand for talent are fueling this movement. At more than $200 billion a year, millennial buying power will soon be larger than any other generation and 73 percent of millennials say they are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. (Nielsen 2015 Global Reputation Study with Future Talent).

Navigating the rapidly changing expectations around sustainability and social issues is not easy. But industry trade groups – once viewed as obstructionists – are increasingly becoming catalysts for change. Trade associations are re-interpreting their role, taking on new risks and creating new partnerships that drive innovation and research and solve problems.

“We’re sick and tired, as an industry, of always being against, against, against everything… We want to be for, for, for something good,” one trade association leader told a pair of university researchers in a recent study.

Trade groups are uniquely qualified to address sustainability and social issues. As the face of their industries, they have credibility, scale, shared resources and expertise. And unlike corporations who must be driven by short term Wall Street results, trade groups can take a longer term approach, creating voluntary initiatives that strengthen and improve their industries.

Industry groups have acted as a force for good on a broad range of issues ranging from human rights and child labor to deforestation, sustainable supply chains, food waste, diversity, education and more.

Successful trade associations deploy three strategies:

  1. Build trust and reputation by articulating and aligning to a clear purpose in all you do, understanding and engaging with stakeholders every step of the way.
  2. Create tools to share best practice and measure real impact.
  3. Be a catalyst for change, setting clear goals, reporting progress and creating cross-sector partnerships.

Finally, trade associations need to embrace robust, campaign style approaches to communicating their efforts to their members and external stakeholders. This means deploying, testing and adapting targeted messages that drive action, celebrating their heroes – people, products and technologies – and integrated visual storytelling.

As the trust deficit continues to widen, expect industry groups to step up.

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