Sustainability is seen as a trend for many brands. Sustainability is used as a marketing tool. But this is wrong: sustainability is not a trend. Not anymore. Sustainability has been used as a buzzword for too long and, honestly, it’s annoying.
Well, first of all, sustainability exists for as long as we exist. It consists in a concern for the future of resources, and this concept has been in the minds of every human being for thousands of years, even if for selfish reasons – after all, what do we do if there is no more food?
According to the World Energy Foundation, the original word for sustainability first appeared in a book about forestry in 1713 – it was Nachhaltigkeit, a german word that stands for “sustained yield” and it was used to state that men should never harvest more than what a forest can regenerate. (https://theworldenergyfoundation.org/a-brief-history-of-sustainability/). So, explain this to me: how come, 307 years later, we are still saying that sustainability is a trend? And if you don’t think the subject was very relevant back then, bare in mind that in 1987 the issue was sufficiently relevant for the United Nations Brundtland Commission to define sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”. It’s been 33 years since then and marketeers and the business world still consider it a trend.
Ok. That’s weird. Maybe the problem is with the word trend itself. To be clear, a trend is a “change or development towards something new or different” (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/trend). I don’t think that something that has been recognized for at least 33 years, probably thousands of years, can still be considered as “something new”.
Conceptual definitions aside, what is wrong with how sustainability is being addressed in the current days? Being a trend means that sustainability can go side by side with the fidget spinner – customers loved it for a while, but eventually they don’t care anymore. I understand that some people can misconceive sustainability as a trend, as activists and environmental organizations have only recently started to be taken more seriously (take the example of Greta Thunberg for example) and governments are actually taking action (such as the UN Climate Change Conference back in December 2019).
But sustainability is supported by facts, such as the fact that we are currently using up the renewable resources of 1.7 earths and expected to need 3 by 2050 if nothing changes (https://populationmatters.org/the-facts/resources-consumption). This will not fade away unless action is taken.
Fortunately, this has been a more and more present issue as time passes and many corporations are finally realizing that being sustainable is a matter of changing how everyone operates and not of how to create a cool marketing campaign. The Sustainable Development Goals have been a great help in structuring which areas companies should consider when making their path towards a more sustainable future and certifications such as the B Corporations (https://populationmatters.org/the-facts/resources-consumption) have motivated enterprises to aim at a purpose-driven strategy.
There are different sections that should be dominated by brands that wish to be more sustainable: having a traceable product, being transparent, being consistent and being honest (https://joanacampossilva.com/journal/sustainability-is-not-a-trend).
Being traceable means giving clear indications about the process. Which materials are used? How was the product delivered? A way to do this is to go for certifications that validate your product (regarding organic materials, using recycled materials or others).
Being transparent goes beyond that. It comprises explaining the customer how we got to the final price. Who are our suppliers? Why do we produce abroad and not in our home country? Do we pay fair wages to our employees and are still able to sell this white t-shirt for €3.00? The main concern that is raised with this transparency process is that we are not just giving information to consumers – we are also giving it to competitors. But remember: there can be a balance between the information that you have and the information that is provided. The goal here is to tell customers what you are doing towards a sustainable future. The Portuguese brand ISTO is an excellent example on how to do this. They provide a price breakdown (labor, transports, logistics, materials, …) for all the pieces that are sold, providing the true cost, the profit margin and what traditional retail charges for similar products. This makes consumers value the brand and understand the worth of their work.
Being consistent is about focusing on the sustainability of all your products or supply-chain rather than of a specific product. A campaign to return old devices that do not work anymore can be a great idea, but it stops being consistent if customers bring their own devices in plastic bags and there is no awareness for that. This is also where greenwashing comes in – there is no point in selling one sustainable product if you can launch new collections every month, do not provide fair wages or do not have the minimum sustainable concern in what relates to the sustainability of the distribution process. On the other hand, there can be a difference between accusations of greenwashing and “baby steps”: Zara, for instance, has launched its Join Life collection and committed to make all of its collections from sustainable fabrics by 2025 (https://therising.co/2019/07/18/zara-makes-a-bold-commitment-to-sustainability-is-it-greenwashing/). If Zara reaches this goal, it will be simply amazing! But most criticisms rely on the fact that the fast-fashion model simply is not sustainable – mass production represents a spending of resources that harms our planet simply to produce waste.
Finally, being honest. The connection between consistency and honesty is clear – at the end of the day, brands can do whatever they want and show whatever they want, because the average consumer is not educated yet to be constantly checking whether the company is consistent or not. But the best thing to do is to be honest: tell customers what your product is, how you do it, the harm it causes and the benefit it does, and let them decide by themselves. This does not go against the purpose of marketing, as if your value proposition really is good, you will have no problem in conquering customers.
To conclude, the most important thing to consider when building a sustainable strategy is that you must consider everything. Every part of the process is relevant, and not only that one special product or that one special campaign. I invite every one of you to stop thinking of sustainability as a new trend or a competitive advantage, but rather a necessity for our businesses and our lives!