Branding Sustainability: Do Good, Then Talk About It

empire-state.gifLast week I had the pleasure of attending the Branding for Sustainability conference at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. This was the real deal – not some day long seminar on “How to Greenwash Successfully.” The seminar focused on how companies can most effectively tell their sustainability stories, and how they can ramp up their sustainability efforts in order to improve brand image. How can you beat that?
Jurriaan Kamp, the adorable Dutch Editor-in-Chief of Ode Magazine opened the day by reminding the attendees that sustainability is an old story: “We look at the organic apple like it’s something new, but actually chemical apples were introduced in the 1950s. Organic apples have been around since Adam and Eve. ” He went on to discuss the importance of bringing values back into the workplace, calling for a day when people can make the same values based decisions at work as they do at home.
Things moved a bit more into the traditional business realm with the panel discussion, kicked off by UC Berkeley Professor and Director of the Center for Responsible Business Kellie McElhaney, who told the crowd that she’s concerned that discussions about sustainable branding focus too much on brand and not enough on sustainability. “You need to have a good CSR strategy in order to build good brand strategy.”

This message was carried through by the keynote speaker, Kindley Walsh Lawlor, Senior Director of Strategic Planning and Environmental Affairs at Gap inc. She discussed Gap’s long history of CSR beginning with a code of vendor conduct in 1996 and Gap’s commitment to take responsibility for ethical treatment of factory workers, all the way through the 2007 debut of organic cotton t-shirts in Gap’s stores. Walsh Lawlor discussed the fact that Gap took these efforts on internally, long before they made them known in the public sphere. The company needed almost a decade to clarify its internal sustainability strategy. They then they carefully determined the most effective way to share their efforts with their customers in a way that would strengthen the brand image.
Walsh Lawlor also discussed Banana Republic’s recent interest in “going green” and the leadership role Gap Inc was able to provide in helping BR unravel what that actually means and how to talk about it.

Banana Republic came in saying ‚Äòwe’ve sourced organic cotton, we’re ready’ and Gap said “No,” quips Walsh Lawlor, ” we want you to look at everything you do, from water use to dyes used in manufacturing. Sustainability is a complex journey, not just a change in the source for a single product. You need to weave the individual ones into a complete story that makes sense for BR and the customer base. “

She went on to note that BR’s advertising campaign around its green initiatives would be much more subtle than Gap’s, due to their differing customer bases. In the end, Banana Republic was blown away by the profitability of its first green line, which showed them they were on the right path and encouraged them to continue to make changes that would increase their sustainability and improve their bottom line.
I’m a few days late with this post because I was in school all weekend at the Presidio School of Management where I’m working on my MBA in Sustainable Management. My classmates love to talk about sustainable business practices just as much as I do. The Branding for Sustainability conference was a hot topic in my Marketing class, and my classmate Carl Schneebeck wrote a great summary of our discussion for our online forum:

A company wants to protect its brand, but even more it wants to enhance it. Striving for and achieving sustainable business practices are an excellent way to do both. For one, it is a defensive strategy against future mistakes. Let’s face it — mistakes happen, and when they do, if a company has not even made an effort to be sustainable it’s going to get raked over the coals.
A company that does strive for sustainability has a better chance at forgiveness and an even better chance at brand enhancement. If Seventh Generation found out that there was a huge polluter in its supply chain and acted to correct the problem, a lot of people would give them a pass for making the effort in the first place. Can the same be said for Clorox? Probably not right now, but by making the effort, Clorox is employing a defensive strategy against future problems while simultaneously enhancing its brand.

The Branding for Sustainability conference was hosted by Ode Magazine and sponsored by CSRwire, BBMG (a firm dedicated to sustainable marketing messages) and SustainAbility, a sustainability consulting firm.
You can check out GreenBiz’s take on the conference here
Readers, what do you think? Is sustainable branding just a euphemism for greenwashing, or is it a necessary part of brand strengthening and sustainability efforts?
Jen slings 100% post consumer recycled paper for the Union of Concerned Scientists, but she’s not representing said scientists on this blog. Of course, she fully intend to swipe facts and figures from their materials in addition to her own research as an MBA student in Sustainable Management. You can reach her at sustainablejen at gmail dot com

Jen Boynton

Jen is editor in chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and lives in Oakland with her husband and normally happy baby. 
Hit her up at on twitter @jenboynton to discuss diapering strategies or sustainability reporting methodology.