Once upon a time, sustainability might have merited an insubstantial marketing gesture. Now we see it as the very reason that businesses are created.
The principles of sustainability have been around for hundreds of years in agriculture, back to the 1600s in forestry. It is easy to see that we would run out of wood if we cut down all the trees unless we planted more. That was sustainability in simple terms. Add in population spiraling, mass consumerism, and unlimited economic growth. The speed we use up resources sped up and quickly outstripped what the world can provide; ecosystems that we need for survival as humans are rapidly being destroyed, leading to degradation and climate change. The greater consumerism, the worse it is. The United Nations data shows the material footprint per capita in high-income countries is 60% higher than in upper-middle-income countries and an incredible 13 times more than low-income countries. Going green is a focus for every government, including the UK.
The famous management consultant, Peter Drucker, is quoted as saying, “Every social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise.” Sure enough, initially, businesses saw a huge marketing opportunity they could exploit to increase profits. Many leaped on the fashionable bandwagon, incorporating short pdf statements of ill-researched gestures in their marketing. Now we see more people wanting to contribute. Also, Russ Avery, the founder and director of Elodie GmbH – a sustainability and creative communications consultancy, says that the public is much better informed now and sees through “greenwash.” He uses the example is tree planting, cited by many as offsetting their carbon footprint. In reality, for a positive effect, the tree has to survive as a sapling and live a long time when mature, so results vary massively on species and lifetime. Elodie’s work has four points, research, education, consultancy, and communication. Russ says that the majority of people ask him, “where do we start with sustainability, and the answer is always, just start. Sustainability is a journey, not a destination”. He asks them what sustainability means to them and their business to uncover a unique sustainability journey. Russ tells his clients to be honest in their communications: If you are just starting, say so. People can relate to that.
Melanie Fisher is co-founder of Zero Waste Goods. Mel has consulted and held sustainability workshops and talks with many leading global brands. Mel says that our products are designed with a cradle to grave approach, disposable and harmful. She now helps companies move to a new way, cradle to cradle. Far from looking for a greenwash gesture when curating sustainable products for their own gift boxes, Mel looks at every aspect of the business. She evaluates materials, supply chain, product design, transportation and shipping, green operations, vision, values, future, ethics, culture, and social good. Mel says that “sustainability isn’t just ‘important’; it is vital, necessary, and an absolute priority. It isn’t something to take an interest in when it suits us; it affects the very fabric of our existence and that of humanity going forwards.” They see a variety of companies using local supply chains, zero plastic, renewable and properly managed materials, wind or solar-powered offices or manufacturing, donating profits to regeneration efforts, and ensuring they are giving back to local communities. Mel says that “an eco-progressive company is one that puts people and planet before, or at least on par with, profits.”
To create sufficient impact to make the planet sustainable, businesses need to rethink their business models. They have to be profitable still, but achieving environmental and social goals need to be at the core of their mission. COVID has also spurred many companies to re-examine their supply chains. They are now looking to ensure continuation for the immediate future and risk assess them for a climate catastrophe. We are seeing giant corporations make massive shifts. A prime example is the giant Unilever, who say that their vision is delivering “a new way of doing business, one that delivers growth by serving society and the planet.” They are combining the aims of increased sales, cutting environmental impact in half, and improving the quality of millions of people’s lives along their supply chains. Businesses have moved from a “not our problem attitude” or the from greenwash marketing into an era where they are wholeheartedly committing to what Russ describes as his agenda “bright future on a planet that nourishes.”
Russ says that real success is when companies link their sustainability goals with the world’s sustainability goals. When we examine supply chains, we start to focus on the ESG, environmental, social, and governance. We now know that social and environmental factors are part of the problem alongside sustainability, as seen in this report from the World Bank. A different type of company is emerging, new ventures and start-ups aiming to decrease their negative effect and become positive, reducing the damage done by tackling those social and economic problems. Companies are being created with this as their specific aim. James Bartle founded the successful fashion brand Outland Denim in response to the social and economic issues he had seen within the garment industry. It took him five years of research to be sure he had a concept that would address the problems. The motivation behind the company was always the solution to those problems.
This is where things are changing and changing fast. Instead of adding on sustainability, new companies are being created to make the world sustainable. As James Bartle puts it, “Owing a company is about creating change, not owning a business.”