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 Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

4 responses

  1. Sustainable branding is important as a means to provide transparency into aspects of a company’s product and internal and external operations in terms of environmental and social responsibility.
    It’s values based. The degree to which it’s infused in the company culture will vary. But either way, in our society now people want to know that their purchase makes a difference. If companies have credible existing or upcoming policies/programs, they should definitely integrate that into their brand communications, either from a company (this is who we are CSR wise) or product/service (embodied environmental & social elements) perspective.

  2. It’s going to be hard for consumers to tell the difference between sustainability branding that is greenwashing, or branding that represents an internal core belief that truly parallels the tenets of sustainability. Clorox is a great example that triggered a red flag for me. Just before our debate in our Sustainable Marketing discussion at The Presidio School of Management, I had seen the Clorox green line of products and brushed them off as a thinly veiled attempt to grab business from those just caring enough to want to “go green” but not yet aware of what that really means. But was I wrong to brush them off? Is their new effort downright sincere? How would I know without having done a lot of research? What about the customers – the millions of baby-boomers, for example – who have progressive leanings but haven’t been brought online yet to embrace the ethic of a more sustainable lifestyle? Will they detect greenwashing branding trying to win their purchase; will they roll their eyes and move on to a product they know but which is not at all sustainable?
    I think Gap Inc.’s steps to deeply vet their supply chain, and their leash on Banana Republic, are very good signs. I appreciate their humility too. Perhaps they can set the tone in the marketing and branding of sustainability. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a great tool to bring to the production process and gives a company a substantial, quantitative and qualitative assessment of their line of products – something most companies haven’t pursued but which adds significant credibility. Such an analysis can pinpoint production problems before they escalate.
    If we’re really serious about exposing greenwashing, a labeling system akin to the Nutritional Information box on food packaging may be needed. This is not a new idea, and involves a system whereby the consumer can be relatively confident, with minimal effort, that a product is not just green fluff and actually was produced with sustainability in mind. Seventh Generation has embarked on a Show What’s Inside campaign, to help the customer make an informed decision. As Banana Republic has demonstrated, integrating sustainability into product design can be extremely lucrative; and sustainability improves brand image. The trick is to make the branding real, and better assessment tools for the consumer are needed.

  3. Brian you bring up the excellent question of “how can we be sure what they’re saying is true?”. The answer to this question is through credible third party certification and transparency programs as initiated by Patagonia and Banana Republic.

    What you’re referring to in a nutrition label is practically a scorecard with additional relevant info. SMaRT certification by MTS is exactly this, and was established by a co-founder of the USGBC which also uses a scorecard for LEED. Cradle to Cradle by MBDC is similar, but not nearly as comprehensive nor transparent.

  4. I agree that it will be helpful to have third-party certifications and verifications–to combat greenwashing.
    However, perhaps I’m just an optimist, but I believe that companies who are not consistent (in product choice, hiring, sourcing, operations and marketing, everything) trip themselves up.
    Tim Manners’ new book is not specifically focused on sustainability, but it does talk about a brand needing to be based on reality. Here’s a synopsis:

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