I recently wrote on Linkedin about the fact that retailers and brands were receiving plaudits for sustainability initiatives that were really only trials, prototypes or tokenism, some might say greenwashing even, when we should be judging them on results.

Some disagreed suggesting that all initiatives should be shouted about and encouraged to help a groundswell of positive change. There are clearly no definitively right and wrong answers.

So when does it seem OK that these companies announce their green news and make a noise and when should they keep quiet? I think there are some interesting, and perhaps less obvious, scenarios and examples out there to look at how different well-known brands approach this and which work… for me at least. Here are four to get you thinking:

Go big or go home

It’s a well known phrase and some brands are definitely taking that approach to the full. Let’s take the example of Microsoft who have undoubtedly made this phrase their motto with their moonshot pledge to become carbon negative by 2030 and that by 2050 they will have removed more carbon from the atmosphere than they have produced throughout the company’s history. This is bold stuff, it doesn’t get much bolder, especially given that right now they don’t know exactly how they’re going to do it as the technology isn’t ready yet. However, such a huge commitment is such big news that no one is going to miss it and that includes thousands of passionate environmentalists who aren’t going to let them off the hook if they suddenly go quiet on this.

And this is against the background of an industry that isn’t the environmentalists friend. Computing giants like Microsoft and Apple have vast carbon footprints that extend through complex supply chains that span the world. They require precious metals to produce circuit boards and batteries that are often regarded as conflict minerals as they are partly mined from parts of the world where child labour persists and health and safety is laughable. Meanwhile product design that seems to encourage rapid obsolescence increases the huge amounts of electronic waste (WEEE) generated. All-in-all, not the traits of a sustainable industry or one of it’s biggest players.

But I think that bold commitment by Microsoft passes the test. It openly asks everyone to hold them accountable to their huge commitment.

Green and crispy or rotten to the core?

Apple are playing in the same massive sandbox as Microsoft, but their sandcastle looks very different. In a 2017 Greenpeace report into the consumer electronics sector, they came out ahead of Microsoft and only second to the sustainability darling of the electronics world, Fairphone. And yet how often have you ever seen Apple boasting about their green credentials? If you read the Apple annual sustainability report they have done some pretty impressive things, reducing their carbon footprint by over 35% in the last 5 years (that’s big for a company of this size!) and their new global headquarters which opened in 2017 and houses 12,000 employees is one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world.

I have a client who works for Apple and was involved in a project that, with their support, turned old Apple branded shop fixtures into furniture for schools in India that previously had no chairs and desks for children. All highly impressive and yet, possibly because they know how dirty that sandbox that they’re playing in can be, and how much negative attention things like the employment practices within their supply chain or their massive income disparity have drawn, they keep pretty quiet about it. I think that demonstrates awareness and integrity.

Mum’s gone to gen up on her sustainability credentials

If you asked crowds of shoppers on a Saturday morning (back in the day when crowds of shoppers was a thing!), who the more sustainable supermarkets are in the UK, I’d be surprised if many of them would have named Iceland, the supermarket chain best known for frozen food, but Ethical Consumer ranks them up with Waitrose, only trailing M&S and Co-op. More might associate them with cheap party food at this time of the year and yet they were the first UK supermarket chain to target all its own brand products becoming plastic-free, remove palm-oil from its ingredient list and they now have vegan aisles in many of their shops. However, one of the few times Iceland tried to market their work in this area, with a Christmas advert that focused on the plight of orang-utans threatened by deforestation, the advert never made it to TV screens as it was deemed to be political in nature, produced as it was by Greenpeace. But it was watched online by more people than it’s John Lewis counterpart.

Iceland’s approach has come across as low-key and more concerned about doing the right thing than just marketing ideas that they think consumers want to see. I think that’s partly because of their CEO, Richard Walker, who clearly believes in the sustainability cause and so the moves feel authentic and genuine, something that’s much harder to do for a big faceless corporation whose CEO changes every 3 or 4 years. So while some may disagree about the efficacy of their war against palm-oil, that’s another win in my book.

Have you been on the beers?!

Brewdog is another consumer brand who have been making a big noise about sustainability more recently with their claims of becoming the UK’s first carbon-negative brewer. I was sceptical at first and given their opportunistic guerrilla marketing techniques I started off wondering if I could smell greenwash in the air. But again, their honesty and personal passion shines through; they admit that it wasn’t until a meeting with Sir David Attenborough that the sustainable penny finally dropped, at which point they followed the science and enlisted world-renowned expert Mike Berners-Lee to help verify and authenticate their plans which are ambitious and are already happening. They’ve won me over.

So what can brands learn from these examples?

  1. If all you’ve got to talk about is claims and commitments, make them big and bold so you can’t hide away from them.
  2. Be sensitive to consumer sentiment about the industry you’re in and temper your marketing accordingly. If you’re in a “dirty” industry you’ll need to tread more carefully.
  3. Make sure people can see that your intentions come from a personal position of truth…if you’re faking it for marketing effect when all you actually care about is shareholder value, you’ll get found out.
  4. Be honest about your sustainable background. It’s OK to admit you are late to the party if you genuinely care about being there until the end and helping with the clearing up!

Do you agree with the examples? Which brands do you think are getting their sustainability communication right? And if you’d like to talk to someone about what your company’s sustainability messaging should be, let me know. If I can’t help I have fellow consultants who are sustainability marketing experts!

Neil Russell-Bates, Hilltop Sustainability

See my original Linkedin article here.

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