We are no longer on the cusp of a sustainability movement. The markets are shifting rapidly to support impact brands with implications for growth and blue-chip companies alike who are bringing environmental and social good products and campaigns to market.
BlackRock put forward its own net-zero agenda on the heels of CEO Larry Fink’s annual letter which said, “We know that climate risk is investment risk. But we also believe the climate transition presents a historic investment opportunity.” Over the past three years, the market has seen environmental assets in investment funds triple, reaching $2 trillion in the first quarter of 2021 to the tune of $3 billion per day. Nearly every day, we see unprecedented stakeholder activism, legislation and grassroots movements supporting the global zeitgeist around environment and social good.
But here’s the rub. According to a study by SB Brands for Good 88% of consumers would like brands to help them lead a sustainable lifestyle and yet Etienne White, VP of Brands for Good at Sustainable Brands, says 67% of consumers could not name a brand that goes above and beyond to address environmental challenges and 72% couldn’t name one that addresses societal challenges. Whether that gap is from misinformation circulated to position companies as sustainable (greenwashing) or from brands underselling their initiatives for fear of cancel-culture if they make mistake (greenhushing), what’s clear is the opportunity for brands to integrate sustainability into their brand strategy in a meaningful way.
I attended the Brands for Good conference, hosted by Sustainable Brands, to get a few ideas on how to build a world-class sustainability program that takes advantage of this opportunity. Here’s what I learned:
Set A Broad Vision With Measurable Goals
One of the reasons for the current “greenwashing cancel-culture” phenomenon is that companies oversell their one kinda green product instead of making a meaningful commitment and launching a measurable program. Then, when other brands who are doing good work see consequences, they often shut down for fear of retaliation. What if their work isn’t perceived as enough or if they don’t meet their goals? Many of them underpromise or “greenhush” on the public commitments that could attract new customers.
Customers are smart. They don’t expect brands to solve every environmental and social issue in the world right now, but most of them want to feel confident that the money they spend and companies they supports reflect their values. This means making a commitment and bringing your customers into that story. According to Sandy Skees, Global Lead of Porter Novelli’s Purpose and Impact Practice, “the data shows that customers want to know what companies are doing at the product level and at the company level.” And, White shares, 96% of US consumers try to live sustainable at least some of the time and 4 out of 5 customers want brands to help them become more sustainable.
This is a huge opportunity for brands but it requires trust. One way to do build this trust is for brands to set an ambitious, big picture vision of what they want to achieve supported by measurable goals and objectives. Sound familiar? That’s because this is the same formula companies use to set performance goals against their long term vision. The opportunity is to connect the dots and integrate sustainability at the highest level of business strategy.
Storytell The Journey, Not Just Goals
“Consumers want honesty over perfection,” says Skees. “Almost two-thirds understand that working on climate and social justice takes time. It’s a journey and they are willing to hear how your company is doing over time.”
When brands share their journey, customers are more likely become invested and build empathy for the company. As brands miss the mark and share their learnings, customers are more likely to be forgiving (more on this below). And, as brands make progress toward their goals, customers are more likely to identify with those wins, celebrate and share them.
The challenge here is that brands need access complex data sets to tell credible stories and measuring commitments around sustainability programs, for example Scope 3 carbon emissions, can be difficult and expensive to do. While companies like Watershed are building emissions dashboards for companies like Doordash and Airbnb to track emissions, the traditional model is to hire consultants to crunch the numbers which can be expensive and therefore infrequent. Skees recommends storytelling about sustainability with the same frequency as marketing new products: ongoing and consistently.
Product as Marketing
A brand is to a company what character is to a person — it’s what we perceive their values to be by the choices they make, the problems they solve, and what they don’t do. When there’s a gap between the brand promise and the product experience, you have a problem. You’ll experience brand impact — customer service calls, returns and a barrage of upset tweets — until you fix the product. The same principle holds true when companies make brand promises around sustainability.
The most authentic and aspirational way to market a sustainability story is to tell how and why your product was made. And it’s important for that product to be integrated into a brands core business strategy. As Skees tells us, “allowing just some small progress program or product be the carrier of all your sustainability communications is a type of greenwashing.”
Some companies whose product or brand promise are centered around sustainability include kelp CPG company, AKUA, which focuses on creating food like burgers and jerky because reducing meat consumption cuts carbon emissions and farming kelp, which has the ability to remove carbon and nitrogen from the ocean five times more effectively than land-based plants, is good for the planet. The fashion industry has made some huge strides in product innovation as well, with Girlfriend creating leggings from recycled fishnets and Everlane launching an entire clothing line from plastic bottles. In all of these examples, the product itself is the story worth telling because it moves beyond sustaining the status quo into actually solving environmental issues.
If your core business isn’t green, that’s okay. But when launching a new line of products, stay away from overselling what you’re doing. Instead tell the story of the journey and enlist your customers to support it, like Everlane’s plastic commitment which is brilliant. I recently read a press release from a famous toy producer that created a line of dolls from “ocean-bound plastic*”. On the surface, this seemed pretty cool. But because of its positioning, I found myself researching that asterisk disclaimer and found confusing language and unconvincing promises at the end of the tunnel. It also made me wonder why this company hadn’t positioned this as a test before making a broader commitment to use recycled, ocean-bound plastic in all of its toys. This is an example of how overselling one product can become a brand detractor, hurt your authenticity and break trust.
Consider Your Entire Supply Chain
The rainforests breathed a huge sigh of relief this week when luxury retail giant, LVMH, joined Canopy’s Pack4Good initiative. Canopy, known for “greening” the Harry Potter books, focuses on protecting old growth, frontier forests from falling victim (sorry) to unsustainable product supply chains. And they are crushing it. The Pack4Good initiative now comprises 156 brands — like UGG, Hunter, Patagonia and many more — worth over $78.5 billion USD in revenue.
There are also new packaging incumbents on the rise, like Olive, which is focused on eliminating cardboard shipping altogether. Using re-usable totes to ship for retailers like Adidas, Anthropologie, and Goop, Olive hopes to make a dent in the billions of cardboard boxes we used to support over $860 billion in online orders in the U.S. last year, up 44% from 2019. While this strategy is old-hat for e-commerce giants like Rent the Runway, which has shipped in reusable totes while recycling plastic hangers and liners since its beginning, seeing new businesses emerge that can support sustainable shipping options at scale means we have choices — as business owners and consumers. And this means a responsibility to make more responsible choices around a brand’s entire product supply chain and the waste it generates.
Own Mistakes and Do Better
Cancel culture is a real thing. Consumer’s teeth are sharpened and claws are out. It can feel scary to admit fault when the risks of not being forgiven are a real threat of a brand’s very existence. And, I would argue, it’s not the mistake that people cancel. It’s how brands show up to that mistake. How they take responsibility, make a commitment to do better and actually do it.
I’ve experienced this first-hand, on the front lines managing crisis communications for a well-known brand. In those moments (and in all moments, frankly) people don’t want lip service or excuses. They want to know that you’re going to make it right.
Let’s look at the beauty industry for a case study of two iconic brands with enormous brand loyalty: Glossier and Fenty. Glossier takes a hit for marketing vegan mascara that is found not to be vegan at all after a post by whistle-blower Instagram account Estée Laundry. Shortly after, Estée Laundry takes issue with the amount of bubble wrap used in the company’s packaging. Glossier responds by launching a new product called Bubblewrap which does not go over well. A year later, Glossier comes around and makes a clearer commitment to sustainable packaging, essentially paying a penalty on brand sentiment to end up doing the thing customers wanted anyway.
Now let’s compare this to Rihanna’s beauty brand, Fenty Beauty — who named a face highlighter Geisha Chic, referencing the face paint worn by Japanese hostesses. Within a week, Fenty apologized and pulled the product until it could be renamed. Custromers and fans felt heard and Fenty got celebrated for its quick response. This is the model of a growth mindset — when brands listen to their audience and take responsibility for mistakes. According to Estée Laundry, “The worst thing brands and targets of negative criticism can do is to stay silent and hope for things to blow over. We were surprised and delighted by Fenty’s immediate response. Most brands get defensive and try to attack us.”
These mistakes can be expensive — which is why user research and focus groups are a critical part of shipping new products. Even if that’s doing a small test with friends of friends, asking for feedback and listening, iterating and growing is a huge factor in building a sustainable brand.
Support for sustainability, environmental and social good is only going to get stronger as we continue to face global issues like climate change and social unrest. By starting now and building a sustainability program, brands can still catch up and capture valuable market share and support from investors. As Skees, says “we’re starting to see ratings, rankings, and indices that are doing data scraping, and if you’re not talking [about sustainability], you’re not getting credit for what you’re doing and there’s perhaps the perception that you aren’t as far along as you actually are.”