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Is sustainability sustainable?

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It’s 2020. Brands are continuing to jump, lemming-like, onto the sustainability bandwagon. Everyone has an ethical story to tell and an ecological flag to wave. But what happens when your moral compass is pointing in the right direction, but your sales forecasts aren’t?

Is sustainability good for business?

It’s a conundrum facing many of today’s brands, but one thing’s for sure – consumers are already favouring ethical, ecological brands that talk about their sustainable credentials, and this will only become more important to future generations. They won’t just want it, they will demand it, and any brand not completely authentic will surely suffer. As Greta Thunberg so eloquently put it in her landmark speech to the United Nations: “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

The big players are already responding to the challenge. Last year, during Cannes Week, new Unilever CEO, Alan Jope, said “We will dispose of brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny, your skin soft, your clothes whiter or your food tastier”. He went on to say that he thinks there’s profit to be made from purpose. This is evidenced by some impressive figures from Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ portfolio brands.

Purpose-driven advertising has certainly taken centre stage creatively in recent years. So-much-so that the organisers of the Cannes Lions have dedicated an entire category to it – The Grand Prix For Good – leading to some of the best, most effective pieces of work in any category, not just its own.

The sweet spot, therefore, seems to be between sustainability, profitability and creativity. Although that may be true right now, how long will it last?

Should businesses care about being ethical and sustainable?

Personally, I don’t think brands should, or in fact will, stop purpose-led messaging and initiatives. And that’s a good thing. The world needs as many companies fighting for it as possible, doing good in whichever relevant, authentic ways they see fit. The ‘creative’ winners will be the ones who frame their messaging differently, consistently. They’ll keep challenging norms, and challenging their customers to change their perceptions too. 

However, the real winners – the ones who’ll also profit from purpose – will be the brands whose altruism threads seamlessly through every aspect of their business, making it a genuine part of their DNA. From research and development, ethical sourcing, environmentally sound supply chains, diverse and inclusive employment policies and much much more. Because it’s time for brands to start thinking beyond doing less harm to keep the planet on an even keel, and more about how they can make a far-reaching, actively positive contribution.

As usual, it’s the brands that think differently, act intelligently and communicate honestly who will succeed.


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