On the face of it, building a sustainable brand looks relatively straight-forward. After all many brands already claim to be doing this. That’s both good news – and misleading. Taking the time to build a sustainable brand requires patience, focus and an ability to rethink priorities.
It’s inspiring to see brands addressing their environmental impact, focusing on improving social injustices and actively supporting animal rights through their sponsorship or business practices. But it’s also deceptive – because, as this review of H&M discusses, a handful of initiatives and some well-articulated intentions don’t qualify as a truly sustainable brand.
Instead, you need to build a sustainable brand on a fundamental belief that brand innovation and value creation will come from tackling social, commercial and environmental challenges sincerely. That may sound straight-forward enough, but sustainable brand building, and the pursuit of what’s right for all, will, in time, evolve into a major piece of re-engineering across almost every facet of how your brand works.
The early steps are easier. They focus on defining what you are committing to, and your timeframe to get there.
First realise sustainability is not one thing
In much the same way as every brand seeks to be different, the way it contributes to a sustainable world can also be different.
Before you look to build a sustainable brand, you will need to identify and define what the umbrella term “sustainability” means for your brand in the context of what you do and the type of relationships you have with other organisations to achieve collective good.
It will need to be a commitment everyone in your brand can look to align to. You should also look for direct line of sight between your definition of sustainability and your other long term commitments such as your purpose, vision and values.
If it takes some time to get this right, it will be worth it. A professional services brand for example has very different things to think through than a mining company, a gaming company or a property company.
It will take at least a decade to fully get there
Set a realistic timeframe within which to build a sustainable brand, recognising that there’s urgency and there’s not.
There is – in the sense that brands need to be actively planning (and not just talking about) how they will be more responsible now, because the timeframes to do this right are longer than many realise. There’s not – in the fact that taking the time to plan properly instead of just rushing into tactics and optics will put you in a much better place going forward.
Building your sustainable brand is certainly not going to happen overnight. As we said earlier, the process to get you there will impact your brand and indeed the wider business in ways you probably can’t imagine right now (never mind, getting everyone else to imagine and agree) and may fundamentally challenge many current assumptions.
Even 2030 may be a little ambitious to get this done – and as you read on, you’ll see why.
Just one facet of sustainability – decarbonisation – may be as far-reaching for businesses as digitisation, and may take even longer.
Which is why all of this is going to take real commitment and energy and being open to making critical change decisions. That will build, in time.
Sustainability is about much more than improvement
If we start from the premise that doing less harm is not good enough, it’s clear that just tweaking what you’ve been doing is not going to be enough to build a sustainable brand.
Sustainable brands should be looking to improve the world. Ultimately – to the point where the more people experience them, the better the global situation is for all of us. In this regard, there is no conflict between turning a profit and doing good. Imagine brands that, through their production, don’t just use less plastic or produce less waste (because that still adds to the amount of plastic and waste being absorbed by the world). Instead these products eat plastic, shrink landfills, clean water. And they do that because they were designed from the outset with those outcomes in mind.
Even this one idea represents a significant shift in mindset from how we’ve all been taught to create products. To build a sustainable brand, focus on creating a business environment that enables prosperity to benefit not just shareholders/investors but also local, national and global communities.
Using the dynamics of brands for good
What makes this truly powerful is putting brands at the centre of this step-change. It’s the great fold-back.
Brands, by their nature, have been built on product and/or service growth and margin and have therefore been resource focused. They have made ongoing demands on finite resources in order to be present and profitable. To build a sustainable brand, switch the premise. Move from building a brand that demands people/planet resources to one that replenishes, values and supports these resources. That way, the power of branding remains but the impacts are reversed. You literally get consumers buying into a better world.
There are hints of this happening already of course. Adidas is making millions of pairs of shoes out of recycled ocean waste. But the real revolution will come when we manufacture much more widely from what we already have: when waste becomes the fuel on which people, profit and planet thrive.
Brands will still make – what will change is what they make from, and what happens to what they have made.
The basis for relying on brands rather than austerity to change the way we care for each other and our planet is based on our psychological disbelief that people will forego what they have gotten so used to for the greater good of others, despite what they may say.
Consumerism is a powerful ally if you want to build a sustainable brand
Consumerism is now so deeply rooted in how we behave, what we believe in and who we think we are that attempting to disentangle ourselves from that feels futile. If you believe as we do that people base their buying decisions on the buying behaviours of their reference groups (including their friends, family and their social media influencers) they will always want more money, more clothes, more stuff for their homes, shoes and so much more. The premise of what needs to happen becomes rooted in those actions. And the onus switches to companies to find the opportunities in what they have previously ignored or discarded.
Sustainability cannot be reductive. It must work with how people naturally want to behave rather than working against it.
Nevertheless, it represents a real shift in the priorities that governments, NGOs and private sector brands pursue, and some of these ideas will really challenge how organisations see their purpose and the type of value incentives they set.
Imagining the future
Once you have defined how you will contribute to a better world, and the timeframe within which you will achieve this, it’s time to think about what these commitments will mean for the brand as a whole. These are the wider implications of applying sustainability to your brand – and they will take time, investment, commitment and a lot of conversation to resolve.
Eight Re-set principles can help. Some will clash directly with what we have all been told for a very long time that we are in business to achieve – until you remember that working the way we have has gotten us into the mess we’re in. Approach with an open mind.
Principle 1: Make amazing things
The world is cluttered with products that lack design, capability and distinctiveness. As a company, we’re constantly querying the value proposition of products that brands bring to market. So much of it is poorly made and under-powered in terms of distinctiveness or attractiveness. Not surprisingly, such products make little impact on consumers and command little or no residual loyalty.
Sustainability won’t save a bad product.
First and foremost, a brand must be desirable in order to be effective. It must appeal to a certain market, it must have a competitive edge. It must be available when and where people want it. Allbirds for example didn’t just set out to make shoes that caused less harm. They produced the most comfortable shoe they could. At the same time they used sustainable practices to deepen their story and achieve differentiation. Build a sustainable brand (even in a very busy and rapidly commoditising market) on this basis.
Principle 2: Ring-fence growth
No company is going to be prepared to stop producing in order to be sustainable. But a great first step if you’re looking to build a sustainable brand would be knowing exactly what your growth target will be, and why. If more companies precisely defined their year to year targets and the basis for setting them, they would, by extension, know exactly what they had to make, what resources that would require and what they would earn. We wouldn’t see the “300% in three years” objectives that we see far too often and companies wouldn’t simply produce huge batches of stuff, and hope against evidence that they can sell it, as too many do.
They would use evidence-based demand management to ensure they only brought to market what they knew they could sell.
This step alone would cut levels of over-production and wasted resources in some sectors by millions and millions of tons. And that’s before we think about the countless goods sold at less than full margin or landfilled every year because supply vastly exceeded demand.
Principle 3: Agree return
If more brands thought like a yield stock instead of a growth stock, they would focus on exactly what they could return rather than how much they could grow.
If more companies judged their success on their ability to hit an agreed “sustainable viable return” instead of chasing growth figures that reflect fantasy and greed, then so much more could be achieved to reduce the harmful impacts that growth-for-its-own-sake is having on our people and planet.
To do this, think of your brand in limited edition terms (which is why it needs to be amazing). With a specific return (and nothing less and nothing more) for each production run. The payback for foregoing ‘potential’ is cutting back on waste and knowing exactly what you will make.
If your volumes are big enough, you could look for ways to apply machine learning to your product and /or design development in the years ahead. As the cost of applying big data and machine learning to decisions comes down, there is a clear opportunity for brands to be using algorithms to track performance much more exactly and to pair it closely with sustainability goals. Such insights will be able to predict how much even the biggest brands need to be producing in order to sell at full margin, for example, and therefore without any waste. You will also be able to forecast in precise terms the levels of materials you return for reuse and the resources you need to align with your sustainability targets.
Principle 4: Consider the after-life
If more brands thought about the end-life of their brand products rather than just their production, they could redirect their energies to producing brands that have zero impact or that produce waste that can be completely used elsewhere.
To build a sustainable brand, you need to challenge yourselves to rethink your materials beyond recyclable.
Challenge your innovators to deliver cradle to cradle or circular economy products. In fact, zero or negative waste must become the key driver for innovation. That directly counters the dependence on irreplaceable resources that has been a hallmark of production for so long. To thrive in the world ahead you can’t work retrospectively. You must bake sustainability into the product or service offer right from the start.
To do this, brands need to be very aware of all the wasteful impacts they generate. Put in place innovations to bring those negative effects down to or below zero within an agreed time.
Too many brands are producing products that have no endism plan. No-one has thought through what to do with them once they are no longer useful.
Example: Maersk finds a new way to ship
In 2014, shipping company Maersk launched a cradle to cradle programme that enables them to track every nut, bolt and part on their Triple-E vessels. When the vessel has served its purpose, employees will literally be able to sort every material into high grade and low-grade steel and other pieces such as copper wiring. Designers will then be able to reuse all of this material to make new vessels for a fraction of the cost and with hugely reduced environmental impact. Of course, if such an approach can work for something as huge and complex as a ship, it can also work for products that are a lot smaller.
Principle 5: Clean up your supply chain
A better world is about more than just what happens where you are. Supply chains are critical to more humane and transparent ways of doing business. They are, quite rightly, becoming the test for social license to operate in sectors where exploitation has been the norm. Sustainable brands make it their mission to know the conditions and pay of those who work for them. They do that by choosing not to take certifications at face value. And/or by shortening their supply chains so they have line of sight back to their sources. Policies and manifestos about what brands expect are just not enough.
Instead, brands must seriously commit to applying their values to every situation in which they operate. For example, they can increase what they see using tools such as SourceMap. More than that, sustainable brands will make a point of highlighting what they have found out. Building a sustainable brand includes every place and part of your brand. It’s not about highlighting a few sustainable corners whilst unsustainable business practices continue as usual everywhere else.
Principle 6: Cut the carbon
Ultimately every sustainable brand is looking to understand its emissions footprint and systematically reduce its pollutants to zero. Buying carbon sinks to justify your carbon emission footprint is a good first step, but it’s not the complete answer.
Principle 7: Do good in the world
Sustainable brands should also be looking to the Sustainable Development Goals to identify how to better the world. These 17 Goals cover almost every aspect of modern life in one way or another. Draw on them to make meaningful changes that align with who you are. A fishing company for example should probably focus on Goal 14: Life Below Water. In doing so, they should think about how everything they do can affect real change in that area.
Too many brands only treat the SDGs as a framework for their annual reporting.
In reality, they are an opportunity to examine where they could make a greater and wider difference globally.
Again, the SDGs you prioritise should be those that align most directly with your strategy, purpose, vision and values.
Principle 8: Introduce services
In broad terms, companies should be looking for ways to use services to lengthen product cycles to cut waste. In some sectors, this is happening already. Consumers are working out that they can continue to use products they used to replace for a lot longer. Mobile phones are a case in point. Consumers are changing their devices less often. The savings they make are greater than the advances they miss out on.
To encourage this, sustainable brands should start looking to increase the usefulness of products. Prevent them being discarded or replaced by giving them new leases of life. Introduce services that redefine the usefulness of what is being kept.
Time to change
As the implications and effects of climate change become more visible, unsustainable business practices won’t thrive. Consumers, governments, communities and regulators are right now calling time on old market models. They don’t want brands using up the world’s resources and producing damaging and wasteful by-products. It may be happening slower than some would like, but change is absolutely in the air. We believe brands have the capability to do good in the world. Indeed, they can lead a shift to more sustainable ways of living. But they will need to define new terms of growth and success for that to happen.
As with all forms of change, the real struggle will be cultural (both communal and organisational). It’s about getting people to accept a new market model of success that goes beyond what they know.
To help you explore what your brand could be doing to become sustainable, give us a call and book a Feasibility workshop. Use the time to help define what sustainability means for your brand and how you could design your sustainable future using our Re-set framework to test the eight sustainable brand re-set principles mentioned above.