June 30, 2014

6 Myths About Sustainable Brands

The Corey team learned a lot about sustainable business and development while working with IFC (International Finance Corporation). But one of the most surprising things we learned was the degree to which even the most ardent proponents of social and environmental responsibility harbor misconceptions about what Sustainability really is.

New England has traditionally been a hotbed of sustainable brand development. Some of the  most recognized and respected brands in the region include:

  • Ben & Jerry’s (VT); Founders:  Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield
  • Burt’s Bees (ME); Founders:  Roxanne Quimby and Burt Shavitz
  • Dancing Deer Baking Co. (MA); Founder:  Trish Karter
  • Green Mountain Coffee (VT); Founder:  Robert P. Stiller
  • Gentle Giant Moving Company (MA); Founder:  Larry O’Toole
  • Newman’s Own (CT); Founder:  Paul Newman
  • Seventh Generation (VT); Founder:  Jeffrey Hollander
  • Stonyfield Farm (NH); Founders:  Samuel Kaymen and Gary Hirshberg
  • Tom’s of Maine (ME); Founders:  Kate and Tom Chappell

On a national scale, it would surprise most people to learn that Apple, Disney, Dove, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft are regularly ranked among the Top sustainable brands in the U.S. The reasons for that surprise track right back to prevalent misconceptions about sustainability.

So, let’s start mythbusting …

MYTH #1 – The term Sustainable was coined by environmentalists to describe protection of the environment and “green” business practices.

REALITY – Sustainability, as we know it today, appears to have been first used  in a 1987 United Nations report titled, Our Common Future. This report clearly defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While this certainly embraces environmental issues, it is actually far broader in its application. Sustainability is actually measurable across three variables: People, Planet, and Profit (also known in financial circles as “The 3Ps”). Since authenticity is a key requirement of strong branding, to be a sustainable brand, an organization must address each of these elements with the future in mind.

MYTH #2 – Most brands can’t afford to be truly sustainable – it’s just too costly.

REALITY – Cue the annoying game show buzzer. This is a false assumption. In the short term, businesses with unsustainable processes and systems in place (e.g., transportation systems or manufacturing processes) will incur new costs to transition those processes and equipment. But those costs are typically balanced and surpassed within reasonable timeframes.  Case in point: Several years ago, DuPont (a brand that many would not consider sustainable), invested in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 72% and ended up also saving $2 billion as a result of the new, sustainable processes implemented.

MYTH #3 – New technologies are essential to sustainability.

REALITY – Innovations in a variety technology sectors hold great promise, but don’t discount the effectiveness of low tech solutions. As sophomoric as it may seem to simply turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater, or maintain properly inflated tires on cars, each of these measures are ultimately effective in reducing the cost of and dependence on nonrenewable, fossil fuel consumption.

The simplicity principle applies to businesses too. An abundance of windows in your facility has been demonstrated to not only lifts the spirits of employees, but will provide passive solar heating benefits during cold temperatures. By insulating or shading these same windows during summer months, your cooling systems will also require significantly less energy to cool your work space. It’s just common sense, but when was the last time you noticed this simple, low tech method used in a business facility?

What does saving energy have to do with developing a sustainable brand? Brands are more than the market-facing façade of your company and products. It is the essence, personality, values and reputation of the organization. In other words, it’s not enough to simply talk favorably about being sustainable – your enterprise must also “walk the walk.”

MYTH #4 – Sustainable branding is driven by consumer demand and public activism.

REALITY – Certainly this support is helpful in achieving change; but, similar to closing an enterprise-level sale, you have to have the weigh of a central authority to make it happen. For example:  Economists argue that, had U.S. automakers been required to migrate their product lines toward greater fuel efficiency years ago, the rising cost of fuel and economic downturn of ’09 would have been far more easily absorbed and saved the industry billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.  Fuel efficiency standards, as well as carbon tax and credits, all require governmental action.

MYTH #5 – Businesses who donate substantial sums to charity are sustainable.

REALITY – Generous? Yes. Sustainable? Not entirely. Philanthropy has distinct brand benefits, but does not mean that the business is being run on a model that will (A) ensure its long-term survival, and (B) minimize the business’ negative impact on future generations.

It’s not uncommon to hear business leaders bemoan the lack of ROI they are receiving on their donations to charity. The reasons for this are many, but the most important is the most obvious: All the giving in the world will not compensate for a business model that is fundamentally unsustainable. Customers have become savvy enough to look for more than who writes the biggest checks to charity. They now look for certifications, endorsements by associations, substantiation in the media, and widely available word-of-mouth to ensure your brand promise is genuine.

MYTH #6 – Sustainability is the goal.

REALITY – Sustainability is not a endpoint or a destination. It’s a dynamic, ongoing process — a journey — a business model to be tweaked and adjusted as needed. It means monitoring your entire value chain for change, impact, trends and disruptions.

An excellent example of where this is most dramatically the case is in the biofuel industry. While generally regarded as a preferable alternative to fossil fuel, biofuel production has the potential to compete with food production, as well as impact the planet’s ecosystem. Awareness of and sensitivity to these factors will make the difference in whether biofuel production is a sustainable industry or not. How popular will biofuel brands become if consumers one day find food prices rapidly increasing, or shortages of certain items develop because food crops are displaced by fuel crops? An unsustainable business model often evolves into situations, like this, that result in brand backlash.

To varying degrees, these are just a few of the myths that have slowed the wholesale adoption of sustainable business practices on a worldwide level. Sadly, these misconceptions have also lead some organizations to  “greenwash” their brands (this occurs when a brand promises it is environmentally friendly, when it simply is not). Variations on this term include “localwashing” and “goodwashing.” The result is always the same, a false brand promise may be alluring for a short period of time, but in the long run will damage the credibility of the organization, its products and its services – sometimes fatally.

Know someone who would benefit from a little debunking? Feel free to share this article.  Have some myths to add? We’d love to hear about your experiences. So, please share them here.

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