The drive to create more sustainable businesses has reached a bit of an impasse, says Jennifer Rippe, Vice President, Strategy and Innovation, Marks. Find your way forward by making full use of your own unique brand.
Certain sustainability efforts are now absolute table stakes. But faced with the complexity of what sustainability truly entails and the urgency with which the challenge needs to be met, too many business leaders are failing to identify where they can truly make a difference. They focus on keeping up with what their competitors are up to, rather than thinking about their unique way forward.
But tackling sustainability in a more proactive and strategic way, rather than as a reaction to fend off competitive advances, allows companies to drive value and ultimately secures the future of the business. A recent survey by McKinsey highlighted that those companies that make sustainability a strategic priority are those that generate most value through their sustainability programs.
If this all sounds intimidating or daunting, and unlocking that value seems way off, there are ways in which the scale of the task can be broken into more manageable steps.
Find your brand truth
Firstly, you need to look at the core of your brand and identify what your vision for the future can be and where you can truly have an impact. Anchoring your sustainability goals in brand truth is the number one thing that will ensure long-term success.
Food and beverage brand Knorr does this well. It is driven by the ambition to ‘reinvent food for humanity’ and that purpose informs all the brand’s actions – from a recipe for plant-based pizza on its homepage to supporting suppliers and farmers on complex sustainable agriculture projects. As the brand itself puts it, “sustainability is a thousand little stories”.
Identifying your brand core is crucial, but you also need to articulate your actions. You need pledges to inspire people. They need to strike a balance between manageable and ambitious, focused and appropriate. Promising you will deliver something by 2050? Give me a break. Pledges can serve as a tool to reach the community you’re trying to connect to, so you need to get them right.
Widen your horizons
On a similarly practical level, remember that sustainability is about much more than environmental impact or changing the material of your product or pack. It is about social, human and economic change; about fair, equitable living and working conditions; about behavioural change and education, and about the consumer experience.
If a brand wants to make a difference by changing material in their packaging or exploring how to recycle it, sure, that can be done – those are the areas that clients most frequently approach creative agencies with. This is a valid approach, but why not widen your thinking? What are the other ways brands can look at sustainability? Where on the consumer journey can they change the status quo and have an impact on their customers’ lives that goes beyond the tangible pack?
General Mills is a great example of a company looking at sustainability more holistically. It is championing regenerative agriculture and water stewardship across the world, which fits with the corporate brand’s wider purpose: ‘being a force for good for the planet and people’. But most importantly, that corporate brand purpose also ladders down to its consumer brands. It’s crucial that brands communicate their efforts to consumers in a meaningful and brand equity-building way that is right for the brand and relevant to consumers.
You need to be able to draw that link between vision and outward communication. If you have identified a way to have meaningful impact in a specific area of sustainability, don’t bury it in the depths of your corporate website. Find ways in which you can bring that story to life.
In it together
Another key to long-term change is partnerships – both across an organisation and outside of your business. No one company or department within an organisation is going to figure out the solution on their own. There is often a lack of connection in organisations or a lack of awareness of what different functions in the business are doing. Bringing those functions together can deliver huge impact.
Business leaders should also think more often about how they could collaborate, and – in the spirit of solving the sustainability crisis – make learnings accessible and open to others. Nothing should be off-limits when thinking of such partnerships. Why not collaborate with your competitor, if it means tackling a fundamental supply chain issue? Or rethink how you approach research and development, innovation and open-source information?
Nike, for example, released its circular design guide, Circularity: Guiding the Future of Design, to share its insight into designing products that last longer and are designed with end of life in mind. Design for Good, meanwhile, is an alliance of global organisations such as Microsoft, Pepsico and Philips, that aims to deliver positive impact against the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals. Its ambition is to effect change “on a scale that would not be possible by any one single organisation or institution”.
There is no question that positive actions require change, and that this will mean for many a shift in business model and organisational structure. But combining short-term initiatives with long-term vision, aligning across your business and effectively communicating to the wider world will allow brands to be part of the solution. It’s time business leaders embrace the complexity that true change requires – and recognise the great opportunities that go with it.