Sustainable business is about protecting all our futures

Jane_AsscherFor a long time, being sustainable has been seen through an altruistic filter and, in that light, brands could pick or choose whether they wanted to join this particular bandwagon and highlight their ‘green’ credentials.

But, as time has gone on, the world at large has gained a much greater understanding of the environmental crisis facing the planet and it has become harder and harder for companies to ignore sustainability when considering their business strategy.

Unilever has led the way in many aspects and so its former chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed was one of the speakers invited to our recent webinar exploring sustainability. He talked about introducing the “brand say, brand do” mantra when at the FMCG giant and how just talking about positive changes isn’t enough – brands need to act on them.

For sustainability is no longer about doing the right thing; it is also about economics and ensuring businesses are future-fit. Marketing can’t be anything but green, because without acting sustainably brands will be left behind. The future requires companies to take more responsibility for their energy use, raw materials, recycling, packaging and waste.

This is a unique and vital role for marketers. As the custodians of trends and macro insight they can bring that knowledge and understanding into their businesses. By sharing and demonstrating these trends they can help shape long term strategy and identify where the growth will come from.

While Covid-19 has been a health crisis rather than an environmental one, it has demonstrated just how connected – and vulnerable – we all are. Crises of all types have no respect for geographical borders; the world’s population will be affected, and we all need to act.

The Advertising Association CEO Stephen Woodford also took part in our webinar and he pointed out that brands are still producing ads but in a radically different way – often showcasing the measures they are taking for their business to become sustainable. He said brands can act collaboratively to solve these problems and cited the example of Ad Net Zero, which currently has 15 companies signed up and others will follow.

At 23red, we worked with research company 3Gem to survey how people feel toward sustainability and in what ways it impacts their behaviour and purchasing decisions. We found that the environment leads the list of consumer concerns when making sustainable purchase decisions.

Three quarters of UK adults are interested in knowing more about the good behaviour of the companies that they are considering buying from. But the research also found that price, quality and convenience still drive purchases, so moves to become more sustainable by brands cannot be at the cost of compromising other aspects. Company ethics do influence people’s purchase decisions, with only 34% believing industries were having a positive effect on sustainability.

Purpose has been the popular focus for many a brand recently, trying to demonstrate their credibility in owning this space. But brands not only need to have purpose they also need to prove it. Without proof, customers will lose trust, and false claims or liberal use of greenwashing will alienate and annoy both existing, and potential new, customers.

The purpose of the brand isn’t the end of the story, your product or service needs to deliver on its core attributes, but what purpose will do is deepen and add meaning to your brand and consumer relationships.

Greenwashing gives credence to the idea that sustainability is all about image – but sustainable business is about protecting everyone’s future. There simply is no alternative. How soon and how far a company is ready and willing to go may vary, but as Weed urged – take a step in the right direction, wherever your business is on this journey, move forward and make some progress.

Sustainability must be built into every product – people shouldn’t have to pay a premium for that, it should be the consequence of businesses operating properly. Marketers can draw on all their understanding of trends to show management and leaders some of the big shifts that are gathering pace and how their business needs to be part of it.

When Weed was asked to make the business case for sustainability, he retorted – what’s the business case for the alternative?

Changing people’s behaviour can be a slow and laborious process, be it around recycling, waste or climate change. But consumers are starting to adopt different attitudes and behaviours. A sustainable future may require brands to work together, to think collaboratively and push forward. Local communities that are championing sustainability are all joined in a global way, but every impact that is made is experienced individually as well as having a universal consequence.

In three years’ time, UK businesses will have to report their carbon footprint – the future is almost here.

Jane Asscher is chief executive and founding partner of 23red

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