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How to build sustainability into a brand

How to build sustainability into a brand

By Dr Sally Uren, Deputy Chief Executive with independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future (

Mainstream brands are currently busy showing off their sustainability credentials.  From Cadbury’s Dairy Milk - now 100% Fairtrade - to Persil’s Small and Mighty, using less packaging, less water, less energy - mainstream brands are having sustainability makeovers.

Is this just marketing gone mad? A fad?  A cynical attempt to grab a new bit of market share?  No, no, and sort of – in that order.

The market share bit is partly true, but in most cases, from Cadbury to Unilever to M&S, there’s little cynicism involved – this is simply an evolution of their sustainability strategies.  It’s not enough to have shiny policies; leadership today is pushing the sustainability promise into the brand.

And there are at least three reasons why using brands to visibly demonstrate sustainability commitments makes good business sense.  

Firstly, as public awareness and interest in the sustainability agenda grows, there is the potential to cement existing consumer relationships, and build new ones, using social and environmental issues as communication channels (that’s the market share bit).  

Secondly, by doing the work to understand the sustainability impacts of a product, ways of reducing those impacts - and often saving money - become apparent.

Then, thirdly, there’s the bit about securing future supplies of raw materials: doing the right thing in terms of sourcing isn’t simply about a fair wage, it’s also about ensuring long-term continuity of supply.
So what does an authentic voice on social and environmental issues look like? How can you tell if a brand is serious about sustainability?

Of critical importance is the need to demonstrate, visibly, that taking sustainability seriously doesn’t mean business as usual.  There needs to be evidence that as a result of confronting sustainability head-on, some things have changed, such as taking some products - the sustainability villains - off the shelves.

Both B&Q and John Lewis in the UK have stopped selling patio heaters – which lets face it, aren’t part of a sustainable future (a jumper will always be the low-carbon option).

Honesty is also important.  Communicating the challenges and dilemmas associated with a journey to greater sustainability helps build credibility.  Never believe the brand or business that claims overnight sustainability, it just isn’t possible. Businesses such as Exxon, which have had a more recent conversion to sustainability, need to be very honest about the huge challenges they face in switching from an inherently unsustainable business model (oil is running out, right?) to one with renewable technologies at its heart.  

Finally, there need to be absolute targets for reductions in key impact areas, from water, to carbon, to waste.  Normalised targets - units of carbon emitted per area occupied, for example - as the sole measure of a brand’s performance have had their day.

These clever numbers all too easily communicate efficiency improvements, but can disguise an increase in the brand’s overall footprint.  And the argument that ‘we’re a growing business’ doesn’t wash.

That’s the whole point – we absolutely have to decouple economic growth from environmental impact if we are going to get close to the 80-90% reduction in carbon emissions the developed world needs to achieve by 2050.

We are currently in the middle of a market transformation, from niche and green to mainstream.  That’s not to say the niche and the green are not important, they are, and their very existence has paved the way for the big players to engage with the sustainability agenda.

But niche and green won’t deliver the scale of the change we need to see.  Giving mainstream brands serious sustainability makeovers just might.

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