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Sustainability Issue

Sustainable business shouldn’t cost the earth

Volume two / Issue two

Editor's note

"The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone
else will save it"


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Do you have a licence to operate?

Companies are no longer free to chase profits without regard for the world around them. These days we expect businesses to take responsibility.

This can mean many things, and usually exists under the umbrella term of “environmental, social and governance” (ESG). Companies are expected to set a good example in terms of diversity and inclusivity. They should think of the mental health and wellbeing of staff and customers. They should be a role model within the community.

But the most pressing dimension of this responsibility is the role they play in combatting climate change. We know that the human race is slowly but surely stripping the world of its resources. We know that our activities are altering the atmosphere, and therefore degrading the environment in which future generations will live. And much of the responsibility for this lies with the large companies that we work with and for.

Every brand therefore needs to have a sustainability strategy and to communicate it effectively to all kinds of stakeholders.

  • Consumers demand sustainable products. This does not just mean renewable materials. They are increasingly aware that this incorporates packaging, manufacturing processes, as well as the carbon footprint of the supply chain behind the items they purchase.
  • Investors increasingly lean towards sustainably responsible investments. Not necessarily out of any moral duty, but because they have better long-term prospects. Market researchers, Nielsen, describe companies with green practices as both “benevolent and bankable”. In the words of Larry Fink of Black Rock, the world’s largest asset management company: “We focus on sustainability not because we’re environmentalists, but because we are capitalists.”
  • Employees also want to know that they are working for the good guys – so your approach to sustainability needs to be central to your employer value proposition (EVP). It is now well understood that employees are looking for a purpose along with their pay check. A US study found that 64% of millennials won’t take a job if their employee doesn’t have a strong CSR policy. In the UK, a report published by Gallup showed that  71% of workers take a look at an employer’s environmental record when deciding on their next job.
  • And if that hasn’t convinced you, don’t forget the regulators. Fail the sustainability test and it could cost you a hefty fine.

When you see that stakeholders of all kinds are insisting on sustainability, it is clearly no longer a “nice-to-have” for businesses. It’s essential. It is a licence to operate.

So it’s not a question of whether to address sustainability but how…

The moral vs the commercial imperative

Despite the overwhelming pressure from all sides for brands to show their sustainability credentials, there is still a reluctance.

Behind closed doors, there are discussions that focus more on “getting round the problem of sustainability obligations” rather than actually addressing the climate change problem.

You don’t have to support this view, but you can understand it – especially when viewed through a traditional business lens where share prices and stakeholder returns are the ultimate measure of success.

A way round the problem?

This attitude has led to a number of measures whereby large corporations try to buy their way out of trouble. The booming trade in carbon credits shows how tempting this is. Instead of actually changing the way they operate, companies buy – usually from governmental organisations – “permission” to generate a specified amount of emissions.

This sounds fine in principle, but ecologists have warned that this is a dangerous loophole – and no substitute for adopting more sustainable practices. One reason they cite is that investing in planting new forests, for example, is not a stable way of capturing carbon. We should be leaving fossil fuels buried safely below the ground. But instead, we are exploiting them and replacing them with carbon stores on the Earth’s surface. In 2020, many of the North American forests being used as corporate offsets were destroyed by wildfires. And the environmental benefits of their investment went up in smoke with them.

There are also many question marks over accreditation. Governments, standards bodies and many independent organisations offer certifications that ‘prove’ the sustainability of corporate activity. But there is no global standardisation. It seems that countries are as dis-united over measurement and certification as they are over the importance and priority of sustainability itself.

"Sustainable business shouldn’t cost the earth"

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Taking positives from the pandemic

We don’t have to tell you about the downside of the COVID 19 pandemic – but what about the upside?

An important realisation was that we were able to – or rather we were forced to – live our lives and conduct business in a much more sustainable way. An international study showed the global lockdown decreased daily CO2 emissions.

During the peak of confinement in early April 2020, emissions were reduced by 17% (17 million tonnes of CO2) globally.

The marketing community too found more sustainable ways of doing things, such as adapting the way we approached trade exhibitions. For many brands, the big annual trade shows – even now – are the cornerstone of sales and marketing activity. The revenue generator. So they took the whole thing online. Necessity being the mother of invention, there was a surge of creativity and innovative thinking in developing virtual events, enabling the most forward-thinking brands to steal a march on their competitors.

But as soon as restrictions on movement eased, there was a gradual move back towards real events. It is entirely understandable that there was a pent-up demand to get out there and see people face to face. But the environmental benefits of virtual events seem to have been forgotten. The future holds a balance of real and virtual interaction – but, as an industry, we have not yet found that balance. And, having seen how quickly we fell back into our conventional habits of attending conventions in person, we have to ask if the appetite is really there.

"Sustainability has to be a way of life to be a way of business"

Anand Mahindra

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Greenshaming. And other ways to expand your vocabulary…

If there is a lack of real action in the fight against climate change, there is no shortage of talk about it. In fact, myriad new words have been carelessly released into the atmosphere – most of them designed to accuse others of doing too little or claiming too much. So if you set out to establish yourself as a sustainable operator, it’s important to get it right.

  1. Greenwashing (aka greenlabelling) – disingenuously calling your operations and products sustainable when you’ve really not implemented much at all.
  2. Greenlighting – a variant of the above, where attention is drawn to a particularly sustainable feature of operations, thus distracting attention from environmentally – damaging behaviour elsewhere.
  3. Greenhushing – saying little or nothing about environmental considerations. Making light of the critical issue and generally putting your head in the sand.
  4. Greenbashing – a more aggressive form of the above. Hiding behind excuses such as catastrophic costs or some other unseen danger. Being in denial.
  5. Green gaslighting – convincing the world that the ‘climate solutions’ you offer are the only option – when they are actually ineffective against climate change, and designed to preserve your profits.
  6. Greencrowding – seeking safety in numbers, or rather, seeking invisibility. If you are part of a group there is less direct responsibility.
  7. Greenshifting – putting the blame onto the consumer.
  8. Greenblushing – being too coy, too uncertain, or just not well organised enough to confidently say anything. So even though you may have something good to report, you stay quiet, so as not to take the risk.
  9. Greensplaining – spending more time moralising and hectoring others than doing anything about the problem. Physician, heal thyself…
  10. Greendubbing – inventing other new words with the prefix green– to criticise others for actions that you deem either insincere or inadequate. And we just made this one up…

With competitors, commentators and the general public ready to call us out, what can we do to avoid criticism?

So we know that our brands need to project a ‘green’ image. But you can bet that every competitor is doing the same.

How can you make your green message stand out against a forest of similar claims?

This is where the marketers come in…

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Why marketing has a key role to play in sustainability And why no one appreciates it…

A key challenge that has historically faced marketing departments is their strategic contribution towards the business. While some senior marketers have an influence at board level, all too often marketing is seen as the ‘communications department’. The strategic business decisions are made and then marketing is asked to present that position to the market.

Differentiated sustainability

Within many organisational structures, however, it could be said that marketing actually holds the key to the foundations of any sustainability strategy – insights. An understanding of what matters most to key stakeholders across the business – from customers to investors – and the wider market. A true outside-in approach, every action taken in executing this strategy keeps the stakeholders’ desires in mind. Conversely, a business with an inside-out strategy focuses primarily on its capabilities, strengths, ambitions and how to optimise or meet them. Think ‘me’ not ‘you’.

With stakeholder value creation and orientation at the heart of everything, marketers can tap into these insights to skilfully differentiate their sustainability messages. Stories that are built with purpose and portrayed in a truly authentic way.

Who’s doing it right?

One of the dangers of promoting green messages is that most audiences are simply not qualified to judge whether a green initiative from a large business is actually making a difference, or just another example of greenwashing.

But, we couldn’t help admiring how Maersk, a major shipping business, is telling its sustainability story. First, it is highly factual; there are no ballpark figures here, but precise data. The company clearly explains the impact of its activities, so the reader gets clarity instead of windy hyperbole. In addition, it is clear that these activities are not simply driven by its sense of responsibility; Maersk uses a testimonial from a key customer – in this case, consumer giant P&G – to demonstrate the importance of sustainability in the supply chain. Maersk is not just an example to follow in terms of carbon reduction either, its actions are backed by sound commercial reasons too.

Say it like you mean it

There’s a lot of mistrust in the world at the moment.

According to Edelmann’s Trust Barometer research study, a record number of people worry about false information or fake news. The study also shows that, while scientists are trusted by 76% of respondents, a minority of respondents believed the same of company CEOs. In fact, 63% believed that businesses are “a source of false or misleading information”. Essentially, people are finding it harder to believe what they read – especially when it comes from business.

This is clearly bad news for marketers. You can be part of an organisation that is honestly and diligently doing everything it can to help the planet, yet sceptical customers are unlikely to listen. However good your intentions, it’s going to be hard to prove to your customers that you are serious about sustainability, and not just talking the talk.

Here are our top five practical tips to help:

1. Just be honest

Your customers will admire you for your transparency. Admit that you’re on a journey into new territory and that you have the best of intentions. That you and your customer are on that journey together. Recent research in the US showed that transparency in business is “more important than ever before.” But perhaps more importantly, the same survey showed that being honest and open with customers actually protects brands against reputational damage. 86% of participants in the survey said they would give a business a second chance after a mistake – provided it had a history of transparency.

2. Educate the whole organisation

You’ve got to go all in. If the whole company is not behind it, you’re not going to be convincing. All organisations have sustainability promises written down somewhere. But what’s the point of a mission statement or a corporate values document, if it doesn’t actually affect the day-to-day behaviour of employees throughout the company? As already mentioned, stakeholder insights should be driving your sustainability agenda – and that includes employees. In doing so, you will likely be more successful in attracting the kind of people who expect and want to apply their energies in a sustainable way.‌

3. Considered communication

To avoid being accused of any of the terms mentioned previously, think carefully about the messages you project. One of the best ways to show your transparency is to use case studies. While you are understandably keen to outline your “mission”, don’t overdo it. Focus instead on what you’ve actually done and what it means. Once your audience has seen proof, they may be more inclined to believe your promises.‌

4. Assess the impact of your activities

It is often functions, such as manufacturing and logistics, that are the heavy carbon emitters in a business. But marketing has its own footprint. Take a moment to assess the environmental impact of promotional activities. In the world of events, for example, have you objectively assessed the use of virtual events against attending shows in person? We also have clients who insist on single-use trade show stands rather than the environmentally preferred re-usable stands. Understandably, they justify their choice on grounds of cost and functionality – but how does this compare with the environmental cost?‌

5. Just get started

Something is better than nothing. If it’s not on the agenda, put it there. Look for quick wins, such as frameworks. Make sure that when you assess the success of any marketing initiative, you are not just measuring market share or financial return on investment, but your contribution towards the sustainability agenda.

"There is no planet B"

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Sustainability. Do it your way.

At the start of this edition, we outlined the apparent dilemma facing today’s B2B marketers. Commercial reality seems at odds with sustainability. To many people, sustainability costs money – which many companies are unwilling to pay. They are therefore tempted to do the bare minimum – but talk it up to the max.

However, when you start to look more closely at the issues from a marketing standpoint, we can actually see it as a virtuous circle. Customers increasingly choose brands that are honestly and transparently working towards a better future. Therefore, addressing the concerns that our customers care about more effectively than other brands will give you that all-important edge.

As a human being, you know that you need to play your part in the fight against climate change. As a marketer, you know that you need to stand out – and to be meaningful to your customers. So go out and do it. Don’t follow the crowd – especially since the crowd appears to be searching for ways to build a green veneer instead of making a real difference.

Follow your customers’ values. Because, as they say, the customer is always right!

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