How to Authentically Build Sustainability into your Brand

Content Strategy

Industry Insights

Over the last few years it is safe to say that ‘sustainability’ has been the core building block of some exciting new brands coming to market, a buzz word and logistical puzzle for many existing heritage brands, and just plain misinterpreted or superficially layered onto a short-term campaign for misguided gains by a handful of chancers. (Anyone else bored of hearing the Pepsi – Kendall Jenner and Gillette – Toxic Masculinity campaigns used as examples?)

At the core of the meaning of sustainability, is quite obviously the ability to sustain. This means sustaining the planet (what we often think and hear about – the ‘green’ stuff), sustaining people (both your staff’s well-being and development, your audience and the communities you operate in) and sustaining profit (because your business must also be sustained and grow).

Don’t risk falling into accusations of ‘purpose washing’

And this is why and how sustainable initiatives differ from CSR. Corporate Social Responsibility is businesses making positive impacts in the world to counter some of the damage they may be doing through their supply chains, or practices. But these initiatives are not always sustainable. An oil company building a school in an African village may provide some immediate benefit and good feeling but may also ignore the longer-term resources it will take to sustain that school, its people and environment for the future on an ongoing basis. We therefore need to think about sustainability as equilibrium, across all resource.

This however feels overwhelmingly difficult for brands in some instances and has been the cause of many paying lip-service to being sustainable without actually changing, and getting panned for it in the process. The result is a fear from brands of sustainability as a whole. Because look at all the people quick to criticise, to call out ‘purpose washing’, or ‘woke washing’ which Owen Jones’ recent article in the Guardian informed me about, or on the flip side being called out for complete inaction as well. It’s a minefield for brands, because everyone’s got something to say.

But in a business landscape where it won’t be long before environmental damage done by a company will read as negative equity / liabilities on its balance sheet; and where no one will want to stand at a BBQ with their friends and say they work for any company that doesn’t adhere to proper sustainability practices – there’s no choice. And there shouldn’t be. The best, smartest people will work for sustainable businesses they’re proud to work for, and the best businesses will be sustainable. We all have to change, for the benefits of not only the world, our kids, the future, but our businesses. Most are indeed changing fast, and have been for some time. It’s not new.

But how do brands get sustainability right, for them? To avoid the critics, the calls out on social media, or worse, the danger of doing nothing at all, falling behind and falling away – AND do it authentically so they have the authority they need in the most scrutinised of areas?


Functional benefits first, emotional ones second

Building authentic sustainability starts with authentic ‘brand’. It comes from understanding the functional benefits (what your customer ‘gets’) you win at / with. And then the emotional benefits (how that makes your customer feel) that stem from these (that are also ‘winning’ against your competitive set). Once you gather this collection of benefits and feelings, the final step is to build sustainable initiatives that evoke these winning feelings in your audience, and are therefore ownable. Sounds like jargon?

Think of it like this. On one side you have all the much talked about ‘green’ elements of sustainability – supply chain fair-trade, carbon neutrality, ethical marketing and positive societal impact. But these are simply ‘good business’. They’re essential achievements everyone should be working towards, or have already achieved. They’re not ownable. You don’t need to shout about them on your homepage. They should just exist. Don’t believe me? Harvard people are smart…

‘Being green is no longer a cost of doing business; it is a catalyst for innovation, new market opportunity, and wealth creation.’ Harvard Business Review

And on the other side you have sustainable initiatives you can own, that are both strategic, create balance of resources and sustain a healthy audience and community.

If a winning functional benefit for Dove is ‘moisturisation’, and the winning emotional benefit from this is that it makes you ‘feel confident’, then advertising that uses real, radiant women to promote confidence and true beauty is the sustainable initiative. They aim to sustain a healthy, happy, confident community and audience that will benefit everyone going forward. It’s not ‘green’. But it’s still all about sustainability.

If a winning functional benefit of a JEEP is its ‘ability to drive in all terrain’, and the winning emotional benefit from this is that it makes you ‘feel strong’, then its sustainable initiative might promote strength – men’s mental health, tiger conservation. (These are just hypothetical examples, rather than actual initiatives. But you see where we’re going.)

Gucci understands what it needs to change in an environmental sense, as a heritage brand with many historic, understandably less sustainable processes to remedy. They launched Gucci Equilibrium to create a set of checks and balances to right all the wrongs for a sustainable future; but they don’t shout about this in their core messaging on their main website. Instead their ownable sustainable initiatives are through what they do best, fashion. Runway shows with all transgender models, messages of ‘My Body, My Choice’, female empowerment amongst others. They know a better future exists with more equality, understanding and inclusion. And this is what they own.

As mentioned earlier, newer brands simply have sustainability baked in. And it’s ‘easier’ for them than for Gucci for example, because it’s considered from day one and they don’t have the operational overhaul to worry about. Veja (Vegan trainers), who even post cheap quotes from Chinese manufacturers for their shoes on their site that they could go with, but don’t due to their sustainability policies; and only sell limited edition ranges, not scaling to demand, but only as fast as retains resource equilibrium, achieve a great commercial positioning, as well as a compelling message.


Implementing authentic sustainability: COSI

So, it’s a complex subject; but our advice, to avoid being scared of being accused of purpose washing, not knowing how to differentiate yourselves amongst your competitors or simply avoid doing nothing at all is to make everything you do:

CARING, OWNABLE, SELFLESS & IMPACTFUL. And then your future as a business will too be ‘COSI’.

To authentically build sustainability into your brand:

  1. Think long term
  2. Lead with your brand first
  3. Do all the green stuff, you have to, but don’t shout own about it in your core messaging like it’s new or virtuous. Have a dedicated area for this in your philosophy
  4. Think emotionally and strategically against your competitive set. You can still ‘win’ with your sustainability initiatives.
  5. Make it caring, ownable, selfless and impactful


By Nick Ford-Young – Head of Studio Black Tomato