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Sustainability Has To Be A Core Business Principle, Not A Marketing Strategy

Contributor: Robby Clarke


With the word itself putting many consumers off, sustainability has become tainted with rampant greenwashing and misleading communication. And, while the headline may appear obvious, few organisations understand it fully. In the early stages of what will be a defining decade to come, it’s time over for business as usual to ensure a change in mindset filters across every company and sustainability becomes an inherent business value.


Jan Christian Vestre, CEO of Norwegian design brand Vestre, is a shining example of leader who has built sustainability into the business model as a core value.


When addressing the design industry, sustainability is a complex subject. It has so many facets, a lot of unknowns and also solicits a variety of conflicting opinions. Often, when one solution is found, it unearths a lot more complications with it. That being said, one thing remains clear: the function sustainability plays within each individual organisation will shape it for years to come.


It isn't about developing communications to sit in line with what you think your brand offers, it needs to run through every aspect of the organisation. And, in embracing this as a core mindset, it will automatically become evident to those engaging with the company where your priorities lie.


Operating a business which mitigates the effects of human impact, but also positively benefits the environment, is executed excellently by the studio of Sebastian Cox in London.


For designers starting out, if you don't hold sustainability as a basic principle which is embedded into the functionality of your business, don't start at all. As extreme as that may sound, we unfortunately are not in a position to keep generating products and work for the sake of beautiful aesthetics. I agree a product must be desirable and design-led, but without the conscious production behind it, or an added benefit it will bring to an environment, it doesn't have a place in the sustainable future we are working hard to achieve.


With various designers re-thinking processes to mitigate waste levels, closing the loop on production cycles and encouraging the implementation of a circular economy, we also need to be designing with the long-term future in mind. By that I mean operating in a way which of course doesn't impact the planet negatively but simultaneously looks at ways it can positively add to it. As Professor Michael Braungart states when discussing his concept Cradle to Cradle, “It is not about ‘saving’ the planet but about learning to thrive on it.” 


Margent Farm is a hemp farm based in Cambridgeshire. In conjunction with Practice Architecture, they created Flat House on the site using the hemp from the first crop grown.


For example, Margent Farm in Cambridgeshire in the UK recently completed an architectural project to create Flat House, a home made using hemp grown directly on the farm itself. Not only is the production of the materials better for the environment, but hemp itself acts as natural regulator improving the air quality inside the space.


This approach to design has to become a normality. With a rising number of conscious consumers expecting this from brands they deal with, the key to longevity is to respond now. Every area of the business needs to be re-evaluated. From working conditions, to equal pay, to a transparent supply chain and a closed-loop production system, we must facilitate this much needed movement. Until we realise that we don't have an option but to operate in this way, change won't take place. And while it won't happen overnight, we need to consciously begin.


Using hemp as a material is not only better for the environment but also mitigates damp internally improving the air quality of interior spaces.


So, if you are wondering what the next decade holds for your company, a bolt-on communications strategy isn’t going to cut it. While communications and transparency for consumers is fundamental, to be truly sustainable it has to be engrained in the ethos. And don't be afraid if you don't think it is. Just be honest. As long as you are open about the journey you are on and the improvements you are making, that is what we need from you.


Being sustainable is more than using the words compostable or recyclable in your description of a product. Its a cultural shift which becomes a subliminal part of what the company represents. Neil McKie, founder of Stance, a design agency working with brands to implement technology and systems to tackle some of the biggest problems faced by society today, claims sustainability is still seen as an additional commitment. “We need to get to a point that it is normalised in the same way year-end accounts, or quality checks during material sampling are to any modern business.” he states, “When people don’t feel the need to beat the drums about sustainability is when it will be engrained in the value creation of designing and selling a product or service.”


Sustainability has to be an inherent function of our businesses without the need to create a marketing message to try and convince consumers that you are.


While change may be an unsettling prospect for some, it is without doubt timely. We are lagging behind on the Sustainable Development Goals set out in 2015 and we all need to accept responsibility for this. Consumers are asking for solutions and businesses have the facilities to provide, and answer the question, for them. And in turn, this will add pressure on governments to encourage the systemic change which is urgently needed. Together we can move away from a world of fake news, over-claiming and a desire to jump on the bandwagon, to one where we work hand-in-hand to help each industry readjust to pave the way for a brighter future ahead.