Al Gore started it. The former US vice-president highlighted the threat of man-made global warming in his 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Suddenly adding "green" to a company’s corporate-social-responsibility strategy – and having experts in suits tell the story of how companies are protecting the environment – was an easy way to create goodwill. It took time for sustainability to extend beyond being simply environmentally friendly to taking account of the social, economic and cultural impact of a company’s actions.
Sustainability is not just something that requires investment; it is a strategy for future prosperity. And Unilever has proven that sustainability can help drive profits. In 2010, it launched the blueprint for
its Sustainable Living Plan. The company says this strategy is helping it "decouple" its growth from the effect it has on the environment, while improving Unilever’s social impact, driving profits, saving costs and fuelling innovation.
"It is better to reassure customers that your brand offers integrity and honesty than to overwhelm them with tales of polar bears"
Mike Barry, the director of Marks & Spencer’s sustainability initiative, Plan A, says wider economic, environmental and social challenges led to its launch in 2007. M&S has set out 100 commitments on issues such as climate change, the use of natural resources, waste reduction and improving the lives of its customers. Barry says this is an attempt to "engage every employee and every customer in a more sustainable future" (see page 21). And it is also saving money. Last year, M&S saved £180m as result of Plan A. The company aims to have a "Plan A story" for each of the three billion individual items M&S sells each year.
Fortunately for consumers and the planet, the list of brands that are moving beyond the empty rhetoric – BMW, Dell, GE, Ikea, Levi’s, Nike, Starbucks, Tesla, Walmart, even Coca-Cola – is growing. However, the question remains: what is the best way to communicate this message to customers?
Use sustainability to inspire new products
Rethinking a product, its packaging and how it is sourced are all ways in which brands can communicate their environmental and social consciousness. They can also create new products. But companies must be careful not to make sustainability the product’s only unique selling point. Remember Nike’s Considered boots from 2005? They were made with brown-hemp fibres and were disparagingly dubbed the "Air Hobbits". The product is no longer sold. Nike has since emerged as a sustainable leader by focusing on business development goals as well as product innovation.
Ikea has a similar mantra, which promises to make every product more sustainable while maintaining its quality, function, form and affordability. Or take the example of Levi’s Wellthread initiative, which recycles old material into new clothing. And then there is Dell, which integrates alternative, recycled and recyclable materials into its products.
Promote sustainable behaviour
One of the biggest challenges businesses face is encouraging better consumer habits. From Sainsbury’s "Make your roast go further" campaign to the "Moderate drinkers wanted" activity from Heineken, companies are aiming to inspire shoppers to help make ethical initiatives more effective.
But they don’t always work. Consider the case of Unilever trying to persuade people to take shorter showers. (The energy used to heat the water for the showers in which its products are used accounts for most of Unilever’s carbon footprint.) It is a goal that is likely to remain unfulfilled. Chief executive Paul Polman is reported to have conceded: "This is by far our biggest challenge and, as yet, we do not have a viable solution."
Partner the experts to improve the world
Teaming up with a non-governmental organisation or charity is a way to gain credibility. Five years ago, in a partnership with WWF, Coke changed the colour of its iconic can to white to draw attention to the effect of global warming on polar bears.
One of the most successful charity tie-ups of recent years has been between Pampers, owned by Procter & Gamble, and Unicef. The "One pack = one vaccine" campaign has helped eliminate maternal and newborn tetanus in 17 countries.
Harness consumer participation
One of the best examples of a business that involves its consumers in sustainability is outdoor clothing company Patagonia. It is striving to achieve a "benevolent economy", where people will buy fewer things at higher prices, and goods are both recyclable and made to last. The company uses materials that either benefit, or cause minimal damage to, the environment and its working conditions are "safe, fair and humane". Patagonia claims its revenues have continued to rise even as it has encouraged consumers to send worn-out garments for repair.
Sustainability and ethics should lie at the heart of everything a business does. The challenge now is to tell this to the customer in a way that engages. However, Barry says it is better to reassure customers that your brand offers integrity and honesty than to overwhelm them with tales of polar bears: "How we try to crack this conundrum is by finding products that are delightful and that are also making a positive difference to the planet and the people. Boy, it’s a difficult thing to do."