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Brands and Sustainability- Ignorance No Longer an Option

May 20, 2014

There was once a time late in the last century, when brands didn’t really have to think about their societal impact. If the brand’s owner was lucky enough to have a Corporate Social Responsibility program, the company’s brand would use it as a “halo” and that would be it.

In 2014, global society faces even greater challenges; when you consider growing disparities between the “haves” and the “have not’s” and the issues surrounding environmental degradation, climate change and the increasing challenge of resource scarcity.

To make the core facts clear:

  1. The amount of resources we currently use is 1.5 times the world’s current capacity
  2. The richest 85 people in the world have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion

From 2000-2007 sustainability was making its way onto the corporate agenda, but the economic events of 2008, made corporate survival the priority at the expense of thinking about the corporation’s long-term impact on society.

Brands still haven’t fully woken up from their post-recession sustainability slumber and are just continuing to choose to ignore the issues because they are too complex, not relevant to the business, or because they believe that consumers really don’t care and they can get away for now without thinking about it.

However, ignorance is a very dangerous game to play as Unilever’s CEO- Paul Polman explains.

“Take the issues of smallhold farming, food security, and deforestation. They often require ten-year plans to address. But if you’re in a company like ours and you don’t tackle these issues, you’ll end up not being in business.”

While the majority of brands may have conveniently chosen to continue to ignore the big issues, a few are starting to jump back into the pool. In an era where brand trust is key and brands have recently suffered some setbacks in this arena, some brands believe social issues are a good way for them to be seen more positively.

Coca-Cola’s advertising campaign from Singapore which featured migrant construction workers (the country has over 300k migrant workers) being sent soft drinks, was one recent case. There has also been the emergence of a new wave of brands like Tom’s and Shinola, for whom, social responsibility is the core part of their DNA for the get go.

A problem with many brand efforts in the sustainability space is that while well intentioned they’re often working in areas where the gaps are simply often too large to make a significant difference. At best, they are seen as token and at worst they can be seen as exploitative; using social situations to the brand’s advantage with limited impact on the issue itself.

One company that stands apart from almost every other is Unilever, who now has sustainability and social responsibility ingrained into the corporation and linked to all of its brands.

In the 2014 Globalscan Sustainability Leaders study, Unilever led the rankings by such a considerable margin; it appeared like it was the only company engaged with the issue. To put this in context- Unilever led by 22 points on the question “Which companies who have sustainability integrated into their business strategy?”- Companies like Patagonia, Wal-Mart and Nike were simply left trailing in Unilever’s wake.

Unilever leads because since 2009 under the stewardship of Paul Polman, the company has embarked on a highly ambitious corporate journey- to double its turnover while reducing environmental impact and increasing positive social impact.

These aren’t just platitudes- Unilever is changing its thinking from short-to long-term. For example, it not longer reports fully on a quarterly basis and when it broke the news to the market, its shares suffered an 8% drop. It’s looking to change broader business and finance attitudes to encourage more long-term thinking- especially amongst its major shareholders- the pension funds and their fund managers who are incented with quarterly bonuses.

At a brand level it’s interesting to see one of Unilever’s brands, Dove recently got taken to task for not being 100% honest in its most recent ad campaign.

Even Unilever, isn’t perfect!

Maybe the quest for another Dove global viral hit put too much pressure on the creative idea.

What’s notable about Dove is that instead of just using the issues surrounding women and beauty as a brand lever, years ago they DID something by creating a Self-Esteem Fund to try and remedy the situation. Perhaps Dove should be talking a little more about these efforts in its advertising?

Brands need to tread carefully, but there are things they can do, in order to make sure they think strategically around the problem-like asking themselves these five questions:

  1. What’s the social issue they’re hoping to highlight and get behind?
  2. What role is the brand playing in helping to solve/tackle the problem?
  3. What tangible actions/what is the brand DOING to try and solve this problem?
  4. What difference will these actions make?
  5. Is the company engaging with others like NGOs and other brands to help make a broader contribution, or just acting alone?

Tangible, concrete actions are essential, but so to is the ability to have some humility to be able to recognize the company/brand’s efforts when contrasted to the scale of the issue. Pretending you are the knight in shining armor coming to the rescue of the problem isn’t going to work. A nice example of humility is Shinola’s CEO Steve Bock declaring the role of his company in the context of the city of Detroit.

“(Shinola is) a small part of what we think will be a great future for the city.”

As the 2014 PWC Global CEO survey showed, most CEOs recognize that business should be playing a role in helping elevate social issues (70 percent of respondents agreed with the idea that “satisfying social needs beyond those of investors, customers, and employees” was “important to [their] business.”), but are often unable to act because the pressures from their board for short-term results are too great.

Within recent weeks, we’ve had news that the Western Antarctic ice shelf has collapsedthere’s a continued drought in California and we’ve even heard Chipotle threatening the possibility of removing guacamole from its menu because it can no longer guarantee avocado supplies. The environment isn’t the only social issue in the news; we’ve also got fast-food workers demanding fair wages and tech icons like Google finding themselves at the center of a class war in San Francisco.

Brands are going to have to face up to reality of these issues. While it might be impossible to expect organizations to fully embrace Unilever’s example, we can expect to movement in their direction. Sustainability will soon be back front and center of the corporate agenda because there simply won’t be an option to ignore it and use uncertainty as a convenient excuse for inaction.

“Unfortunately, we live in dramatic times. Yesterday’s news about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is just the latest reminder of this; there will, almost certainly, be much more “surprising” and “alarming” news to follow. Which is why counting on uncertainty is such a dangerous idea.”

Elizabeth Kolbert- The New Yorker-May 12th-2014

As sustainability moves back to the front of the agenda, there are obvious potential pitfalls for brands as they think about using it in communication.

As Fast Company recently informed us, we are now in an era of “Sad-vertising’; brands appealing to the heart to get us engaged. With this trend comes the temptation to exploit the heartstrings without truly standing up to be counted.

Brands will have no choice- they have to act, but they will need a sustainability strategy and use it to determine what it is they can DO in order to make a difference and putting that difference into context before going out and shouting about it.

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