Total honesty is the way forward for brands

You may have to focus less on profits to build a company for the future, says Sally Tarbit, director at brand consultancy The Team.

Creating a sustainable brand is becoming more attractive to consumers and adopting more environmentally friendly practices is likely to pay dividends long-term.

But brands are going to have to start being genuine in their sustainable claims and efforts. Recently, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has made a point of clamping down on greenwashing.

It’s rapidly becoming less and less acceptable for brands to promise they are doing a lot to keep people happy, while doing the minimum. Greenwashing won’t work on consumers – and nor will businesses be able to get away with it. 2022 was a watershed year: Austrian Airlines (part of Lufthansa) made some incorrect claims about their sustainable air travel, prompting a huge crackdown on greenwashing in the EU.

If businesses want to futureproof, becoming genuinely sustainable doesn’t need to be an exception, but business as usual. It needs to become their key priority, even above profit.

Why deprioritising profit is a good thing

Deprioritising profit might sound like a strange business plan, but actually, it makes plenty of sense. Planet Earth has a climate emergency. As the saying goes, ‘there is no Planet B’. If brands want to even exist, long-term change needs to happen. Fast.

Besides, without sustainable change, brands will eventually be forced to adapt their operations. Climate change will break down supply chains: a report from Kings College London has shown that climate disruption to global supply chains could lead to $25 trillion net losses by mid-century.

Governing bodies will aim to prevent this through legislation, but more immediately, consumers lead the way. Clothing company Patagonia, synonymous with sustainable business at this point, has quadrupled sales in the past decade off the back of its push for sustainability. People want responsible companies. Profits need to be invested into sustainability as a priority, and evidently, there’s little actual risk in doing so.

How to be a genuinely sustainable business

Prioritising sustainability must be done properly. Initially, this means knowing and committing to sustainability in its entire sense. Being sustainable stretches beyond climate issues; it includes social and governance concerns too (ESG). This means brands need to think about ethics, fairness, and positive impacts across their work, but also internally – how they help their employees, how they recruit for the future, how they remain accountable, and how they leave the world better than they found it.

For many, striving for ‘B-Corporation status’  has become a roadmap towards being sustainable. Businesses from co-working spaces like Second Home to reusable cup makers like KeepCup are on board.

This won’t work for all companies but is a great template to consider. Where you start will be different depending on your brand’s output.

Materials, manufacturing and distribution of products are the obvious areas, but every sector has its priorities and complexities. They should be keen to tackle issues head on, not just the easy fixes.

Transparency is key. Who Gives a Crap, recycled and sustainable toilet roll, tissue, and kitchen roll manufacturer, is a good example.

Founded in 2012, it has won loyalty through colourful design and bold purpose: dedicating part of its website to the company mission, and communicating upfront. For instance, it explains why it donates 50% of its profits to charities and projects, with “almost all the rest of the 50% of profits [invested] into growing the company”.

The company has donated almost £7m so far. This is a great example of the notion of a ‘fair profit’ in action; make a profit, but don’t be greedy, and return some to doing good.

This authentic transparency is why the company resonates with people. You don’t need to be perfect. But you do need to share as much as you can about your processes, setbacks, and successes.

Look at how our client, tomato grower RedStar, has approached this. Part of its website is dedicated to explaining its holistically sustainable working practices across people, produce, partnerships, and the planet.

It reveals its current strategy, its future aims, and that – while 40 percent of its energy usage is recycled – RedStar is 100 percent committed to the planet. By being upfront and honest (without making massive claims), the message comes across as genuine, and creates a good impression.

Shifting mindset will reward brands

Brands need to shift their mindsets away from sustainability being a celebration and commercial advantage, to its being a moral imperative viewed as a ‘work in progress’.

By thinking more diversely, we can learn to guard less and share more. Collaboration will help drive constant improvement and business value.

Seldom is making sustainable change cheaper in the short term, but in the long term it certainly will be. This isn’t just about business, it’s about life itself.


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