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What do Donald Trump, Brexit and drinking straws have in common?

The answer is, of course, that all of these have dominated headlines in 2018. But while Brexit and The Donald were to be expected, the focus on plastic straws is perhaps a little more leftfield.

Such is The David Attenborough Effect with Blue Planet 2 splashing conservation across the news pages and starting a tidal wave of conscientiousness that shows no signs of stopping.

In short, 2018 has been the year when sustainability went truly mainstream.

What does this mean for businesses?

So then sustainability has become something people expect rather than want from businesses. That works on both a proactive level (see Nike’s campaign with Colin Kaepernick) and a reactive level (McDonalds banning plastic straws).

With so much of this dialogue playing out online, as you might expect the conversation is being driven by millennials – a much maligned group which, more than anything, is focussed on making the world a better place.

Just as millennials have been accused of “killing” everything from “breakfast cereal” to “the real estate industry, you might now argue that millennials are killing the “half-hearted attempt at corporate sustainability” by holding to account businesses who fall short.

The result is that many businesses have found themselves caught short and are scrambling to play catch up. Equally, there are businesses out there who’ve taken sustainability seriously for years and who are now, quite rightly, a bit miffed that they’re losing share of voice to businesses for whom sustainability has only been a concern for five minutes.

The business case for sustainability

There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that businesses which place sustainability at the core of their business models are growing (much) faster than their less conscientious peers.

The challenge is of course that sustainability by definition has to be a long-term strategy. At the moment, most businesses tend to see it at best as a PR exercise and at worst an obstacle to growth and a waste of time.

However slowly but surely things are changing thanks to the push of consumers and the pull of growth. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that sustainable businesses represent the future.

What is “sustainability”, anyway?

Many people equate sustainability with environmentalism, but this is only part of it. For me, sustainability is about a long-term commitment to working toward leaving the world a better place than you found it. That means looking after more than just the environment, but people as well in both social and financial terms.

Once you start to see the world through this lens, the opportunities are extremely exciting. For businesses, sustainability shouldn’t necessarily be about charity, it should be about finding ways that sustainability can lead to growth. For example, an employee profit sharing scheme that improves productivity, or a sourcing model that improves livelihoods through trade not aid.

Three major mistakes businesses make when communicating their commitment to sustainability

  1. They don’t do it at all. Plenty of businesses have amazing sustainability stories to tell but either aren’t sharing these widely enough or at all. This may often be for noble reasons, but I’d argue that the more voices in the push for sustainability, the faster we can make change happen.
  1. They’re all mouth and no trousers. Without naming names, a few businesses talk a good game about sustainability without having the substance to back up their claims (known as Greenwashing). While this may have passed muster in previous years, people have grown much more sceptical of unfounded claims, lessening the impact, or even potentially proving to be a reputational issue.
  1. They’re opportunistic. With sustainability riding high on the agenda, many brands have sought to capitalise and earn kudos. While any effort to become more sustainable is most definitely to be applauded, it’s imperative that brands think through the long-term implications of policies and campaigns. Simply chasing the headlines means the sustainable outcome of a policy might be lessened, or in some cases, could even do more harm than good. And if that happens, a nice idea can do long-term reputational harm (we’re looking at you Kendall Jenner and Pepsi).

How to become known as a sustainable brand – a six step process

While there may not be a one-size-fits all solution, there are ways that any business – whether a sustainability pro or a total novice – can improve its sustainability communications. Here are six steps to consider:

  1. Think long term and create a strategy. When it comes to sustainability, long-term thinking is essential. This means mapping stakeholders, assessing where the biggest differences can be made, and indeed, the ways sustainability can help your brand to grow. Any potential initiative needs to be thoroughly considered and interrogated to ensure it genuinely leads to sustainable outcomes rather than just nice headlines. Thinking long-term also helps to avoid potential pitfalls e.g. a business that makes a sustainability commitment for a point in the future and then duly fails to meet it.
  2. Redefine your purpose. The cold, hard fact is that most businesses exist to make profits. However, it is certainly possible to evolve a business’ purpose to be more outward facing and to place a higher emphasis on positively impacting the wider world. Doing so is the first step towards creating a mindset or a culture of sustainability.
  3. Don’t go it alone. There are many organisations out there who seek to help and support businesses become more sustainable. Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI), Soil Association and B Corp are just a few that spring to mind. These organisations not only give you guidance and support, their certifications are a way to earn people’s trust.
  4. Build a communications plan. Once you’re ready, you can build a communications plan that assesses who your audience is, what messages you want to share with them, and plans how you’re going to get those messages to reach them. News announcements, creative campaigns, events, roundtables, newsletters, social media, influencers are all great ways to do this.
  5. Become a thought-leader. Over time, you can aim for your business to become a genuine thought-leader – a sustainability visionary whose dazzling ideas inspire people and help to change the world on a mass level. Reaching this level will bring your business high levels or trust and admiration – the holy grail of comms!~
  6. Hold yourself to the highest standards and always strive for better. Setting yourself up as a beacon for sustainability means you absolutely much practice what you preach or risk earning the wrath of the social media mob. Best practice in sustainability is a constantly rising tide and one that a conscientious business needs to remain aware of.

The final word

Sustainability has been a rising tide for some time and now it’s broken through, we should expect it to stay. If you’d like to find out more about how to become known and admired as a sustainable brand, drop me a line on thom.walton@wearespider.com

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