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A Guide To Getting Started With Sustainability Branding

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at October 6, 2021

Kelly O’Keefe is CEO of Brand Federation and former Managing Director of the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

For years I’ve leaned into brand strategies that go beyond setting marketplace expectations to exert influence on making communities better. When it comes to climate change, in my opinion, brands are stepping up like they haven’t on other issues.

Many companies, such as Amazon, are moving toward zero emissions. Delta Air Lines is investing $1 billion to reduce environmental impact. Visa is using 100% of its electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar.

I think it’s great for big brands to announce multi-year commitments to show they’re on the front lines, but words only matter when backed by action. There’s no time and no tolerance for “greenwashing.” More corporate brands are starting to show up in big ways, keep their promises and use their influence to drive behavioral change. And brands have business incentive to go big.

1. Talent

Engaging in sustainability branding — eliminating carbon emissions and modeling behaviors that do so — can position companies to attract and retain top talent. Why? Because the workforce wants action on the issue.

Pew Research Center reported in May that 71% of millennial adults and 67% of Generation Z adults say climate change should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations. Generation X (63%) and baby boomers (57%) come in a little lower but still show a majority. Additionally, many workers have taken stock of their lives amid the pandemic, reevaluated what’s important to them and decided to take their careers in different directions.

Brands that join the fight against climate change affiliate their workforces with a purpose beyond their day jobs, which could positively influence the bottom line with increased loyalty, productivity and long-term employment.

2. Investment

In addition to delivering the best talent, sustainability branding will continue attracting big money. Large institutional investors are increasingly moving their money to organizations doing right by the planet. Companies that don’t follow the money and make sustainability a priority risk being left behind with share prices in the tank, bad press and unhappy ownership knowing it could have been different.

3. Engaged Customers

Consumers are voting with their wallets. Tesla, Elon Musk’s high-profile electric vehicle company, is worth as much as the next six largest carmakers. Though still accounting for only 3% of the nation’s power generation, solar power usage is up more than 4,000% over the last decade. Burger King is testing cutlery made with plant-based plastics and new sandwich wraps that will reduce the chain’s paper usage.

Clearly, demand for change is accelerating and not just where it’s most obvious. I believe a shift in consumers’ expectations of brands also is underway, driving brands to make business decisions that align with their customers’ changing values.

Getting Started

Any brand can get started with sustainability branding and deploy its influence. Small starts can lead to big impact.

1. Understand customer concerns.

Your customers will point you in the right direction. A coffee shop may find its customers worry about ethical sourcing of coffee beans. A bank may learn its customers despise paper statements. This ear-to-the-ground insight helps leaders make credible decisions about engaging the issue in a way customers will support and reward.

2. Live your values.

Walk the talk with internal environmental policies and by working with sustainable partners. Procure technology from vendors who prioritize refurbishment, donating used equipment and recycling electronics. Use recycled paper for office printers and any commercial printing needs. Implement travel rules that prioritize providers whose environmental values mirror your own. Source ethically produced materials. The company you keep says a lot about your brand internally and externally.

3. Be a teacher.

Once you’ve established a credible, customer-based approach to sustainability, share information that can make your customers smarter about the issue. They’ll appreciate it and connect your brand to it even more strongly.

4. Don’t greenwash.

In my view, nothing will put a brand in hot water faster than a loyal customer base that feels deceived. Once a public commitment to sustainability is made, it’s imperative to make every effort to meet it and communicate progress, even if those efforts are coming up short. Otherwise, the brand risks a cynical “greenwashing” reputation that may prove impossible to overcome.

Brands As Agents Of Change

It makes good business sense for brands to get involved with sustainability because customers and employees want them to take a stand. Any brand can play a role in making change. Listening to customers and committing to small steps can get you started, an action that can rally others to the cause.

Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?


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