Rising to the challenge

Words by James Brock
Date 2021-06-20

As the challenges of sustainability have grown, and society's demand for action has increased, companies continue to invest significant time and resources into making the fundamental changes necessary to address this defining issue of our time.

But it's hard to detect this endeavour in how most brands position themselves today. Why is this the case? It's not as if sustainability is a new thing and it's certainly not because the challenges of sustainability are considered unimportant or lacking urgency.

Why brands struggle with sustainability

The real issue is one of compatibility. Brands are simple, relevant and optimistic. Sustainability is not.

Sustainability is overwhelming in both its scale and its complexity. Take the UN Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 different goals, encompassing climate change, the natural world, poverty, equality, health, education, innovation, peace and justice, and these goals have no less than 181 different targets that need to be achieved by 2030. Every company is expected to make a contribution to at least one of them. Larger organisations have to address multiple goals and many of the world's most significant businesses have policies in place to address them all.

Or take ESG. Awareness of the term has grown rapidly, to the point where the acronym is sometimes used interchangeably with sustainability. In reality, ESG is really another framework for disclosing information, which allows investors to make judgments as to the long-term durability of the businesses they invest in. ESG information is typically cross-referenced with several other frameworks - such as GRI and SASB - so data ends up being provided for hundreds of different measures. If a business wants further accreditation, say for the Dow Jones Sustainability Index or for B Corp - then even more disclosure is required.

The result is an absolute deluge of information about sustainability: detailed, evidence-based and largely tailored to the interests of a small number of experts. And as these reporting requirements are imposed on businesses by external parties, the whole thing becomes mainly an exercise in risk management. It makes the language of sustainability dry, cautious and uninteresting, because the goal is to be compliant, not conspicuous.

Don't just account for yourself

This is both necessary and important, but it provides poor material for building sustainability into brands. To overcome this, brands will need to chart a different course, a braver and more single-minded one. Accounting for yourself, and standing for something, are two different things. If branding is at its most effective when it's at its simplest, then the same applies here. This is not about risk management or compliance. This is about distilling sustainability down to the point of maximum relevance, impact or value.

This is clearly easier for brands which already have a sustainability proposition built in, like Innocent Drinks or Patagonia. It's harder for brands who already have a well-established positioning.

There are some brands that have addressed this. Marks and Spencer's Plan A is a well-regarded example of how to integrate a sustainability proposition into an existing brand. So is Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan and Nike's Until We All Win community investment programme. Akzo Nobel, the Dutch owner of Dulux paint, call their approach to sustainability 'People. Planet. Paint', which is arguably a more idiosyncratic attempt. They also succeed in showing that an effective sustainability proposition can be simple, without being simplistic. But they are quite rare.

Some nuances to be mindful of

These propositions succeed not just because they are simple, but because people can relate to them. They've managed to find the intersection between what people expect and where the brand's strength lies. But in dealing with this, brands need to be careful not to fall prey to conventional thinking.

What people want is more nuanced when it comes to sustainability. Here, we think like human beings as much as we do consumers, and our responses become less predictable. The instinct to use sustainability to gain competitive advantage is strong, but it's also getting riskier. It's not just because we're all getting wise to greenwashing, and considerably more sceptical when we see it. But it's also because every brand is trying to become more sustainable. The moral high ground - not always well-trodden ground for brands - is getting narrower and more crowded.

The other reason it's no longer credible to see sustainability as just a marketing tactic is because it's actually an exercise in large-scale transformation. It's expensive, risky, and requires an enduring commitment to building social value. Branding is inherently a more appropriate vehicle for signalling that sustainability is not just for the short-term.

But to maintain relevance, brands need to avoid being too long-term as well. There's no shortage of powerful sustainability commitments being made, but with impossibly distant deadlines. Take BP's net zero by 2050, or Amazon's net zero by 2040. This is not to underplay the challenge of transformation, but brands need to avoid the sense that the can is being kicked down the road. For most of us, even 2030 seems unimaginable. If you want to make sustainability relevant, then pick some dates - even if they're just staging posts on a journey - that people can relate to.

Time for a change of mood

But there's another reason why brands have been so timid about sustainability and ironically, it's where they have the chance to make the greatest impact. Tonally, the public narrative around sustainability is problematic. As the deniers retreat, the doom-mongers are in the ascendancy. The prevailing mood seems to be a toxic mix of hopelessness, anger and finger pointing. Many of the voices that dominate the sustainability debate are openly sceptical of the private sector's commitment to sustainability. Some even cast doubt on whether it should have any role in our efforts to combat sustainability challenges.

This is scary territory for brands. It's completely understandable why so many are hesitant to try and take a prominent position. But an absence of voice is even more damaging, so it's important that brands try to contribute to a more positive narrative. One that doesn't underplay the seriousness of the challenges we face but presents a more constructive, optimistic vision of what can be - and what is already being - achieved. The evidence is there. Private sector investment in tackling sustainability issues is significant and growing rapidly. A large proportion of corporate investment in R&D and innovation is directed towards finding more sustainable solutions for how businesses operate. Alternative energy sources are being developed, business models are being transformed and circular economies are being built.

Sustainability: a golden opportunity for brands

This is a powerful story that needs to be better told, and brands have a golden opportunity to tell it. Ultimately sustainability, despite its complexity, can be seen as a series of challenges to how we behave - not just as consumers, but as human beings. Creativity is key to driving the new perspectives and changing thought patterns necessary to overcome these challenges. Project DrawDown is an organisation that believes we have the power to stop global warming with solutions that exist today. In their book, 'Drawdown', they said, "we see global warming not as an inevitability but as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change, a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion and genius."

Brands are crucial to both unlocking this creativity and using it, through big, original ideas, to engage, inspire and motivate us all to change. But only if they pluck up the courage to do so. They will face scepticism from many, and come under attack from some, but they should not be deterred.