Brands are scared to talk about their sustainability efforts for fear of being labelled hypocrites. Don’t let the naysayers win, says Simon Wright
Whether you’re an SME or a major brand, there’s no getting away from the fact that customers now take sustainability seriously.
In fact, one of the biggest challenges facing leaders today is how to stay true to their business objectives and simultaneously not damage the planet further. To succeed, they need to understand and respect the constraints under which we live today, and will live with in the future. The businesses that embrace this can help to deliver a better, balanced future.
We only have to look at nature to see that before we started messing with it, it was, for the most part, in perfect balance. Picture an oak tree as it transforms through the year. It’s the same tree but adapts to each season demonstrating the perfect combination of change and stability for successful continuity. It sounds like the recipe for a great business – stable, strong, established, inspirational, adaptable.
Simplicity is the key to change
Successful businesses embrace change when they need to and when customers want them to, but they only innovate what really counts rather than implementing change for change’s sake. With technological advancements, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that change is always for the better. But while technology has made our lives easier and more convenient, some things haven’t changed. I still commute to work on the same train as previous generations. The journey hasn’t changed (except the same journey now takes longer!) – but the experience around it, the way we book tickets, for example, has been simplified and made better.
Simplicity is the key to better innovation and best change. Think about how long it has taken us to go from a cash society to (almost) cashless society. Each change, from coins to cards to contactless, began as a struggle, but over time we embraced it because it was more convenient. But as technology simplifies our lives, we become more demanding – we’ve turned into a ‘want it now’ society. Yet at the same time, we feel guilty about the impact on the planet, so we demand that businesses put sustainability at the heart of what they do. We want reassurance and convenience without compromise.
“If we really want to save the planet, we must support those companies who are brave enough to put their heads above the parapet to tell their sustainability stories”
The challenge of moving to a circular economy
The biggest change any business is likely to face is moving from a linear to a circular economy. While this will certainly require a new strategy that puts more emphasis on sustainability, it doesn’t have to change the essence of what you do or believe in. Take a brand like McDonalds: They have put sustainability and healthy eating at the heart of their business strategy, but their brand essence – family friendly, fun, fast food, (or for the more cynical, the quest for global domination) – is still the same.
For companies like Tesla, Lush and Patagonia, preserving the environment is as much a part of their brand essence as the products they sell. But what if you’re a B2B software developer or technology provider? Think about Apple. Last year, the company announced that all its global facilities were powered with 100% clean energy. For some technology manufacturers, it might feel incongruous to shout about green credentials but Apple has built sustainability into its mission. It describes itself as “dedicated to making the best products on earth, and to leaving the world better than we found it”. As such, a move to improve Apple’s carbon footprint feels completely in line with its brand essence.
Don’t let the naysayers win
There will always be naysayers and, sadly, this puts off many businesses (oil companies and car manufacturers, for example) from talking about positive change for fear of being labelled hypocritical. As much as we like to criticise those we consider to be doing damage, it doesn’t stop us from jumping in our car or enjoying deliveries from gas-guzzling delivery trucks when it suits us. They are ‘doing damage’ because we provide the demand for it. If we really want to save the planet, we must support those companies who are brave enough to put their heads above the parapet to tell their sustainability stories, even if it feels like a drop in the ocean compared to their core business. They may be taking baby steps, but if those footprints are heading in the right direction from a carbon economy to a reduced carbon, carbon neutral or even a carbon negative economy, then we should accept it as a change for good.
The trick is to move with the times without losing the fundamental essence of what makes your business a success. As with any strategic decision, you need to examine whether the proposed changes are relevant. Are they valuable? From an end-user perspective do they make life simpler, and from a business perspective, will they be profitable? Are they sustainable – do they contribute to the health of the planet? And do they have momentum? If you answer no to any of those questions, perhaps the changes you are considering are not the ones you should be making.
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