Six Principles For Building Sustainable Brands
Over the past few years, there has been a seismic shift in consumer attitude when it comes to environmentalism. Where it was once considered the concern of a few "hippies," today it forms part of a common vernacular and has permeated the mainstream consciousness. A third of America’s waste is recycled. Clearly, however, there is room for improvement. For example, Austria recycles 63% of its garbage.
Sustainability Is No Longer Just Nice To Have
Sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. Research report after research report shows that millennials, today’s largest adult generation, demand ethical and sustainable business. Generation Z is no different and Gen Alpha (those born from 2011 onward) could potentially become sustainable natives, growing up in a time where sustainability is the natural state.
Sustainability Language Is Changing
As a result, the language around sustainability is changing. It has to. In the past, it was too passive and easy for people to ignore. It has become starker, more direct, less passive and less academic. Think about what drove the ocean plastic crisis: more plastic in the ocean than fish. The narrative is changing from "climate change" to "climate emergency." Language and tone have driven this shift. However, many brands have been left behind. For most organizations, sustainability was compliance-driven. On the whole, the outputs were dense, formal and dry reports. This would often be accompanied by imagery clichés such as arrows forming a circle, lightbulbs, trees or wind turbines. That’s the equivalent of plonking a picture of Japanese yen next to a paragraph of text detailing dollar revenue growth. It's totally irrelevant.
And the language isn’t just changing; it’s speeding up. The conversation is moving quickly, and the organizations that are succeeding are those that are at the forefront of it. Brands such as Ben & Jerry’s are guided by progressive values and look at the bigger picture. Making ice cream requires dairy, so, consequently, dairy farming practices are high on the company’s agenda. This is why they launched their Caring Dairy program that encourages farms to support sustainable agricultural practices, top-notch animal care and dignified conditions for farmworkers. Patagonia is another good example. Their mission statement says to not only "cause no unnecessary harm," but to proactively do good. They have also committed to making their supply chain entirely carbon neutral by 2025.
In light of this changing landscape, here are six guiding principles that help businesses better leverage sustainability and make it count.
1. You need a unifying vision and purpose.
One thing all successful sustainability brands have in common is absolute clarity on their purpose. You have to be single-minded about what you’re trying to do. By defining a sense of purpose and a unifying mission, you have a platform to build on. Done right, purpose gives people a sense of shared direction, meaning and intrinsic reward, which creates an emotional bond and engagement with the brand and the business. And it’s not just about customers. Investors want to see it. Employees want to feel it. And the media wants to talk about it.
2. Simplicity is key.
The No. 1 reason strategies fail is because they are too complex. Too many strands dilutes the resource. Sustainability is no different. It is critical to keep it simple and ensure it resonates. An issue — no matter how important — that fails to have a connection to its audience will go unheard. It’s essential that you are crystal clear on what makes you special and what you can uniquely contribute.
3. Stay true to you.
Don’t follow the herd. Stay true to what makes sense for your organization. A Caring Dairy program would be pointless for a fashion brand. A sustainable cotton initiative or anti-sweatshop campaign however, would fit nicely.
4. Convey honesty and authenticity.
Intentionally or unintentionally, sustainability is a concept that has been abused. For every brand that truly lives its purpose and makes a positive contribution to society, there’s another that doesn’t. For these businesses, purpose is nothing more than a shiny veneer. This has created skepticism and distrust between businesses and the people who matter most. Only by consistently delivering on your purpose and demonstrating it is an authentic ambition do you build trust from your customers.
5. Be bold, and don’t hide behind jargon.
Have the courage of your convictions, and say what you mean. Don’t trot out the same tired rhetoric that has become associated with sustainability.
6. Avoid clichés as much as possible.
Sweeping statements such as "We’re committed to saving the planet" and stock images of trees are disingenuous. They scream insincerity and foster distrust.
As influencer Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” With these six principles you can now fulfill that potential.