We’ve all witnessed the push to sustainability in the past decade. What were once talks in the realm of the ‘nice to have’ or some barely formed concerns about the health of our planet have now transformed into sheer fear for some communities and social groups, and the need to act is now more powerful than ever.
This scenario could only be made more complex by Covid-19 and the impact it had on our society, economy and environment as a whole. Having people stuck at home for over a year was apparently quite positive for our planet (who would have thought, right?), and this was a unique occasion for brands all around the world to tap into their communities, showing support and transparency in a year like no other.
Why such a long-winded intro, you ask? Well, the problem is that, no matter how long this pandemic may last, and no matter what some brands claim to do, the issue of sustainability is still incredibly alive and as hard to tackle as it’s ever been. If this is, indeed, a chance for a brand reset and to rework the whole brandscape, brands need to start from here to build a better future for our entire planet.
Still, building a sustainable brand takes more than just slapping a ‘bio’ label on your packaging, and it certainly takes more than just packaging. It is something you embed into your brand’s spirit. Something that walks with you, by you, as you navigate the occasionally unsettled waters of this beautiful creative industry.
I’m not a brand expert myself, of course. Which is why most of this article will include comments from Adam Scott, Corporate Partnerships Manager at Friends of the Earth, on how brands can become more sustainable in the years ahead.
Image credit: Cheil Central America for Greenpeace
Existing Issues in Brand Sustainability
Too many brands believe that using buzzwords such as green, eco and sustainability is enough to free them of the burden of making a positive impact on this planet. According to Adam, the problem is that these words do not have legal definitions and are often subject to abuse by some organisations out there. “Greenwashing is a massive problem right now. We see it everywhere; from energy companies who have enormous fossil fuel portfolios claiming ‘100% Green Electricity,’ to fashion brands who tell us that denim made partly with ocean plastics is ‘sustainable.’ While it’s great that more businesses recognise the importance of being seen to be environmentally considerate, what is deeply worrying is that it’s often just lazy marketing.”
More often than not, these companies do not back up their words with some significant action. Energy companies do not invest in a renewable energy infrastructure and fashion brands steer clear of fuelling a circular economy, by recycling the textiles and fabrics we already have on the planet to create new garments.
Brands must embed change into the very core of their business.
The problem with this form of lazy marketing is that change is not embedded into the core of any process from these brands, leading to a disconnect between what the marketing department wants the company to be perceived as, and how the company actually behaves. It has to start from the manufacturing process. Better yet, it has to start from the brand’s mission, boardrooms and executive panels.
Brands should lead by example and show that they are truly committed to change. “The most important environmental issues for a business to address are the ones it’s responsible for, and therefore can reduce,” Adam adds. According to Adam, a company should look into three ‘scopes’ to improve their sustainability:
- Direct Emissions from the manufacturing process;
- Indirect Emissions from its energy sources;
- Indirect Emissions from other factors such as business travel, product lifecycle and waste.
A business should envision a strategy to lower the impact across all of these three scopes, starting from the first two. Adam adds: “Take supermarkets. In the UK they waste hundreds of thousands of tons of food and produce hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic packaging each year. This should be a key long term reduction goal for them, but while they work on that should aim for quicker wins such as shifting to renewable energy and electric vehicles, banning plastic bags and promoting plant based diets.”
Image credit: Friends of the Earth
Engage, Educate, Normalise
It is only when all of the above issues have been taken care of that a brand can hope to engage with a community and educate consumers to follow their examples. The most important thing is for brands to take ownership of their own mistakes and work to change what has been an established status quo for too many years.
You’ll hear it quite a lot in the course of this piece; transparency is the most important trait that a brand can hope to have in this push to sustainability. Your consumers must know the kind of steps you are taking to reduce your impact, they must be made aware of all your initiatives, and they could sometimes be called to take part in those too. This is the only way in which a brand can increase awareness and hope to educate consumers.
Too many brands tend to fall into the trap of approaching sustainability as a differentiator. The truth is that any brand should aim to be sustainable, and though it is an interesting marketing tool right now, claims alone will bring you nowhere. The real aim is for brands to normalise sustainability.
The push must come first and foremost for politicians, banning unethical and unsustainable business choices.
According to Adam, one way to do this is to start seeing adoption of science-based targets as a norm for doing better for the planet. Businesses also need more “convening groups” which may bring them together to make collective commitments around sustainability, such as decarbonisation, pollution, waste and more. Again, transparency is the key trait to achieve these. “These rely on transparent disclosure of emissions and we still need much more action in this space,” according to Adam.
Somewhat luckily, we can count on consumer pressure too. It appears that more and more consumers are moving away from brands that are not aligned to their values, even more so today than a couple of years ago, and certainly more than pre-pandemic. But the biggest push must come from politicians and governments around the world. “Governments need to legislate business to operate ethically – make climate-wrecking practices illegal and dish out hefty punishment for businesses who continue to do them.”
Image credit: Absolute Post for Boots
The Issue of Packaging
Packaging is another issue entirely and one that would require an even more in-depth look. There are currently too many bad practices in the industry and it looks like some brands are barely doing enough to address them.
Sustainable design is definitely on the rise, but there are some kinds of packaging that are less recyclable than others. Multi-layered packaging is an infamous enemy of recycling, due to the lack of specialised machinery to separate the different materials, and to lack of consumer education. Small packaging such as coffee cups and yogurt pots suffers from a similar problem. Upcycling can be a solution for some of them, reusing bags from cereals as lunch bags and similar – but the issue must also be tackled at its source.
Packaging is a big part of the picture
And while non-recyclable plastic bottles are decreasing in numbers, there are still some major brands out there who use them, such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. One solution for all of the above is to build recyclability into the product itself, making it out of recycled materials from other post-consumer products.
In this era of increased online purchases and with consumer habits shifting quite a lot, you must also consider what you’re doing with your shipments. Foam is incredibly dangerous for the environment, so you can consider creating soluble solutions or compostable materials for your cardboard boxes, such as cornstarch or sorghum.
April is our Sustainability Month here on Creativepool, so make sure to subscribe to our newsletter to receive our upcoming piece on sustainable design straight in your inbox.
Image credit: Juice
Solutions to Reach Sustainability
All of this is clearly easier said than done. “For some businesses, moving to renewable energy or to a fleet of EVs might make significant reductions to a company’s emissions and be logistically and financially manageable. Many others will need help to do so,” Adam adds. This is where the governments all around the world hopefully come in to do the right thing and support businesses in their journey to sustainability. But for those wanting to take action today, there are already some solutions to move steps in the right direction.
On a surface level, the one that consumers see the most, it is all about incorporating sustainability in your campaigns. Be sustainable by all means, but also make sure to feature diverse voices and include diverse experiences. Sustainability should be inclusive at all stages.
If things just don't work, it may be time to change your business model entirely.
If things don’t seem to work no matter what solution you can envision, it may be time to change your business model entirely. This can help a brand reduce their environmental impact, but some are even going beyond this, by making active steps to have a positive impact on society and the environment. This is where transparency comes in, yet again, as it will help you engage in honest conversations with your consumers, so that you can understand what your company can do differently.
In other words, you must start from the basics. Some brands will have to rethink their entire approach to business and strive to understand consumers as much as possible. “Typical business models where profit rules above all are fundamentally at odds with sustainability, with environmental and social justice usually an after-thought,” Adam says. Plus, it is all great and fun to partner with charities and anti-deforestation organisations, but what do your consumers really want you to do? All your beautiful and shiny initiatives must be paired by a complete and thorough understanding of your segment of audience.
Honesty is also another important trait that goes hand in hand with transparency. A brand willing to changemust also be willing to admit its faults, to create a dialogue with consumers and strive to understand where the issue stands in the first place.
You must be thinking of sustainability first and foremost.
Yet perhaps the most important thing is thinking of sustainability first and foremost. Anything you do must be sustainable, no shortcuts. You must think sustainable, act sustainable, and most importantly, plan sustainable. Only then you will be able to get rid of the mindset that your brand may have grown up with, to make a lasting impact on this planet that will change the world entirely.
There are organisations out there offering their support in this, of course. Friends of the Earth is obviously one, but so is WWF, who worked on a film for businesses to help them understand their role in saving the planet.
Example: Fashion Brands
A very simple example for you: say you’re a fashion brand looking to become more sustainable. For fashion brands it is especially challenging, since garments are quite difficult to recycle and include in the manufacturing process. Again, the first step is to be transparent. Be clear with your consumers about your processes and how you handle manufacturing, so you are raising awareness in case of sustainable practices, and showing commitment to the cause in case you’re looking to change.
A fashion brand should then have complete control over where the raw materials come from. Is it a sustainable source, operating with sustainable materials and energy? What kind of impact is it having on the environment? And perhaps just as importantly, is it in your country or are you outsourcing the manufacturing process? This can sound like it has a very small impact on the planet if you are saving costs elsewhere, but at the same time, all those shipments and travel need to be accounted for. Plus, environmental policies abroad may be different, and you may have less control over the way your products are created. You really don’t want to be the Apple in the Foxconn scandal.
Image credit: Toast Ale
Best Examples of Sustainable Brands
In conclusion, Adam provided us with some stellar examples of incredibly sustainable brands as well, illustrating their best practices and why they matter.
B-Corps are an excellent one to mention. “These are businesses whose articles of association include having a commitment to making a positive impact on the environment and society.” Thankfully, that network is growing, especially among household brands, with some technology and startup brands following closely after.
“A good example of a company campaign is Toast Ale’s “Rise Up”. Toast was founded to fight food waste and is currently campaigning to make sure our broken food system is on the agenda at the climate talks in Glasgow later this year.”
Other great examples include WWF and Knorr’s Future 50 Foods, the Make My Money Matter initiative, Tony’s Chocolonely’s Sweet Solution and more. Apps allowing consumers to recycle their goods are also on the rise (Vinted is quite prominent these days and it seems to be faring well), meaning brands could tap into these solutions to envision strategies and partnerships to improve their own actions.
Whichever path you may choose, it doesn’t matter if you are a small business or a multi-national. In a way, we may argue that multi-nationals are much more important because of their size and influence, but it is incredibly encouraging to see small businesses embedding sustainability into their brand proposition. Those are hopefully the big brands of tomorrow.
It takes more than one isolated sustainability campaign to leave a positive mark on this planet. If there is one thing you should learn from all the above, let it be this one.
As WWF put it in their video above: there will be no jobs on a dead planet.