What is sustainable branding?

27 May 2022
What is sustainable branding?

The United Nations defines sustainability as “the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources, incorporating environmental, social and economic considerations”. A sustainable brand’s reason to exist, therefore, must go beyond not harming the environment. It has to create positive environmental, economic and social value. 

So, how many brands actually deliver on this? And can they prove it throughout their entire product lifecycle? It’s a big responsibility and, until now, too many focus on just one of these dimensions, and many more make claims they can’t really justify.

Sustainable Brands (part of PWC) claims research suggests that between 65-95% of Americans wish to live a more sustainable life and purchase products that support a more sustainable future. But with Putin’s vile invasion of Ukraine fuelling a cost of living, hunger and environmental crisis around the world, would that figure be the same today? Instead, will we see an increasingly polarised society divide into those that can afford a sustainable lifestyle paying a premium for ‘ethical’ products, and those struggling on the breadline, just buying the cheapest they can find?

Many questions, then. So how about some answers and examples?

What is a sustainable brand?

A sustainable brand will trigger a strong emotional response, along with a rational one. It will be transparent and able to prove it is at least carbon and pollution neutral, while aiming to make positive contributions to its people and society. Some will be driven by a cause, others by the desire to leave the lightest footprint on the planet, and others motivated by benefitting society. A sustainable brand will recognise that this is not a quick fix, but a journey to zero and beyond, taking their employees, shareholders and customers along with them.

This requires more than just a ‘big idea’. It needs a vision supported by rigorous implementation, with clearly articulated communications, based on a compelling brand promise and a proposition that rings true; and, when put to the test, really is true. The brand name, brand propositions and brand identity are the key to reinforcing this social purpose.

Unfortunately, we live in a post-truth world where too many politicians set poor examples as they seek short-term selfish goals based on narcissism, lies and hypocrisy. They have sowed seeds of mistrust in global institutions and ignore legal agreements to achieve their ideological aims. This sets appalling examples and leads us to look at the world through a more cynical lens; but therein lies the opportunity for business.

The opportunity

If we can’t trust politicians to inspire action on climate change and get us back on the path to a fairer, responsible society, then maybe business can set the benchmarks. 

By placing environmental responsibility and social purpose at the heart of their brands, courageous business leaders can make a bigger difference and set better examples on sustainability, than politicians. 

But because we are all more cynical – especially millennials and Gen Z – it’s even harder to convince consumers business can be good for the planet, but brands with integrity really can make a difference.

There are opportunities everywhere. At home, open your wardrobe and imagine the potential of truly sustainable fashion brands to turn the tide in one of the most polluting and socially exploitative industries, worth £54bn a year in the UK alone. McKinsey forecast that the fashion industry will miss its Paris climate agreement targets unless it cuts emissions by 45% by 2030, while recycling is still woefully low at around 14%. Exploitation of workers in the supply chain remains rife, with even global brands implicated. According to The global Fashion Agenda, only 150 brands have so far signed up to the UN's sustainability goals and most are falling short of their own targets. Any new brand should place these goals at the centre of its business model.

Staying in the home, and at a time where we are all thinking about our energy costs, turn down your thermostat and consider the scale of the opportunity in replacing dirty home heating systems with cleaner, smarter and much more efficient technologies. This will be a journey to zero, not a quick fix, but air source heat pumps and hydrogen will transform the way we heat and cool our homes.

And when you travel, especially in urban areas, how much longer can it be by a single person in an energy inefficient  car? There is a need to shift behaviours and reduce congestion, pollution and carbon emissions by government, metroplitan authorities and private operators investing in much smarter, more efficient, multi-modal transport systems.

Feeding the world is another mega-challenge in our time. More sustainable micro farming that produces artisanal products is fine, but that;s inefficient and expensive. With a worldwide shortage of commodities looming, we need to rethink the way we produce food and the answer is not more intensive farming where fertilisers deplete the soil and turn it to dust.

Today, it’s not only transformational brands that need to tell their sustainability story, every brand now needs to, and those who are most convincing will be the brands that stand the test of time. Empty promises and “greenwashing”, however, will backfire, as evidenced by brands outsourcing responsibility for recycling to companies like Teracycle, the subject of a recent investigation by BBC's Panorama programme. Also in the UK, The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is so concerned that misleading green claims is causing a loss of faith in sustainable products, it intends to name the companies it considers to be the worst offenders and ask them to make changes – those that refuse could be taken to court and fined.  Fashion’s throwaway culture is one of the first in its sights.

Creating a sustainable brand

Brands are well positioned to contribute to sustainability by creating the ‘next economy’, and those that do will prosper. A truly sustainable brand will combine a clarity of vision and well-articulated proposition, presented with authenticity and transparency. These are now the essential building blocks of brand building, describing not only why you should buy the product, but how this purchase will benefits future generations. Validation of this point comes from Zeno Group whose recent study found consumers are four to six times more likely to buy from companies that communicate their sustainable vision with clarity and offer evidence to prove their credentials. Obviously it is easier to create a sustainable business in some sectors than others. It's true that a fully digital business model is not going to face the same challenges as, say, a travel destination where guests have to fly thousands of miles to reach them, but they can commit to sustainability, conservation and local social responsibility to ensure they leave the lightest footprint on the planet.

As well as a clear and compelling brand promise, the brand name should reinforce the vision and not over-claim, greenwash, or mislead. As with all brand names, it must avoid infringing other parties’ IP rights, be pronounceable, memorable and registrable as a trade mark across the world, with domain names, social media handles and space in the app store. Any double-meanings must be positive and free of negative double entendres or urban slang. 

Then there is the brand design. Should sustainable brands look different to existing brands? Should they be green? Should they look open-toe sandal? Could they define a new aesthetic based on openness and accountability? Or should they just be cool? Whatever the positioning, they need to differentiate themselves from non-sustainable brands.

For the sustainable brands of the future, the future’s bright, as long as the branding brings a sustainable vision to life and the brand promise is delivered..

Find out more about Nucleus’ brand strategy, brand naming and brand design agency services.

Peter Matthews
Founder and Managing Director