The opportunities and challenges sustainability presents are something every marketer needs to consider. It is a minefield in which new legislation governs what brands can and cannot say or do, the potential for class action lawsuits looms, and investors can go cold on overtly purpose-driven work. You could be forgiven for leaving it to the next person – after all that’s what’s been happening for decades.
However, we are seeing increasingly that brands can have a greater societal impact, elevating a corporate ESG (environmental, social and governance) agenda beyond a core investor audience while ensuring the products and services they offer remain competitive and relevant to consumers, navigating often seemingly contradictory choices.
Unlike brands born sustainable, legacy brands need to evolve deliberately.
Beyond those brands born sustainable – such as Allbirds, Smol, Childs Farm, Patagonia and Alpro – the trend for large-scale businesses attempting to integrate sustainability into the core of their being is gathering pace – Danone, Natura and Unilever, for example. PZ Cussons, the FMCG business I work for, has also made a bold commitment to integrating sustainability into its core. PZ Cussons was the first FTSE 250 company to announce an ambition to be fully B Corp-certified. The benefit and challenge of B Corp status is how holistic it is in nature, and that it is an externally verified reflection of your business practices – transparent, and more defensible than a typical corporate reputation narrative.
The majority of B Corp-certified businesses for the last few years have been service providers or niche consumer product brands. We are, however, increasingly seeing manufacturing businesses certify – including some of Unilever’s operating units, Bailey’s and Danone, which is now 70% certified. This has not been without some controversy, most notably perhaps regarding Nespresso and Brew Dog. Robust, holistic sustainability credentials should not just be for insurgent brands – after all big brands embracing change can have the biggest possible impact on reducing harm, especially if they are being held to account objectively.
Understand your impacts
Unlike brands born sustainable, legacy brands need to evolve deliberately. For these businesses, it does typically start with the development of a corporate sustainability journey, grounded in understanding of the broad material impacts of the business. This needs to come first, avoiding the pitfalls of the past where brands undertook consumer-facing sustainability work disconnected from understanding of their business and supply-chain impact.
With our corporate sustainability agenda underway, we are now thinking about shifting from something primarily investor-focussed into something which may drive consideration for our brands. This is about moving from activities which reduce our footprint and deliver corporate goals, into considering how ESG shows up in our brand narratives; how it is fully integrated into all our processes; and how we might consider high-impact, relevant consumer-facing communications and innovation alongside the largely invisible footprint-reduction work.
Big brands embracing change can have the biggest possible impact on reducing harm, especially if they are being held to account objectively.
To do this kind of work requires deep understanding of your consumers and their relationship to sustainability and your category. You will quickly find that consumers expect brands and businesses to do the right thing, but they are also rather suspicious that organisations’ motives are primarily commercial and behaviours can appear contradictory. Consumers are jaded by empty promises and misleading claims. Though the sustainability of a brand may not trump perceived value or performance, evidence shows it is a driver of choice of increasing importance with younger adults, and that most people are trying to change their behaviour – reducing emissions, recycling, conserving energy and so forth. Markets are at different stages and consumers reveal different motivations, from doing the right thing to enhancing their experience and seeking status through eco-conscious consumption.
A sustainable brand portfolio
With clarity on your corporate ambition, and understanding of your consumer, it’s useful to ask yourself some simple questions about your brands, starting with how important sustainability really is to the brand and its audience?
This will enable you to make choices within a portfolio about the role sustainability might play. Some brands may play a leading role, or even an insurgent role. For others, sustainability may not be core, and it will be enough to keep pace with the expectations of customers, consumers and legislation while supporting corporate goals. For brands that choose a more leading role, it becomes important to ask how sustainability will show up in brand activities.
If sustainability is highly relevant, ask what the most relevant dimension of sustainability might be. The primary areas brands have considered include water, agriculture, recycling or circularity, biodiversity, waste, water, and DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion). The brands making a name for themselves are single-minded and choose an area relevant to their product, motivating to the consumer, and distinct from their competition – such as Tony’s Chocolonely’s mission to make chocolate 100% exploitation-free, Method’s mission to clean up cleaning, Sephora’s commitment to DEI, and Danone’s focus on farming.
Next, ask yourself what you are going to do about it. You could raise awareness through comms, make behavioural change easier through innovation, or amplify the impact through partnerships.
With some of these choices in mind, it’s critical to create a closed circuit between supply and demand in your business. It is in doing this that a sustainability agenda can shift from one of footprint-reduction initiatives in service of corporate goals, to one in which these largely invisible activities are complemented with authentic activities visible to consumers, employees and investors. As sustainability becomes hardwired into your brands it can shift from being a costly agenda to one where the benefits you gain from winning with customers and consumers create a virtuous circle of investment and belief.
As marketers, we are all still learning and experimenting about how to be credible and authentic when a high degree of scrutiny means brands can be fearful of getting it wrong. It’s an area of marketing where being curious, listening to audiences, experimenting and seeing your mistakes as opportunities to learn is essential.