3 Ways Brands Can Make Sustainability Work for Them

The Launch 2020 project, a collaboration of NASA, Nike and others, is seeking game-changing solutions to sustainability challenges that can scale in 2 years.

By Sally Uren

At Forum for the Future, we believe all brands have the potential to be the solution, rather than the problem, when it comes to creating serious change. We also believe that brands could flourish in a sustainable economy.

Take Nike: Nike realized early on that by providing solutions to some key sustainability challenges, it could both do the right thing and secure its future prosperity.  Switching out carbon for nitrogen in some of its key materials, was the first step; then came Nike Better World, designed to take sustainability to the mainstream. Then the company joined forces with NASA on the Launch 2020 project, an open innovation competition to find game-changing solutions to sustainability challenges that can scale in 2 years.

I believe that brands, as shown by Nike, have the potential to shift entire systems, not just simply change small individual practices, to ensure a sustainable future. Here are three key ways brands can deliver solutions to sustainability issues and create real, enduring change:

  1. First up, brands can create demand, when before there was none. Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Brands have the ability to give people what they want before they know they want it. They also have the ability to normalize behaviors, expectations and desires. At Apple, this is a hallmark of the business philosophy; it demonstrates empathy with its consumers before a market has even been created to ensure its products can thrive in that new market.  In other words brads can lead the consumer, even in sustainability.  There was very little demand for sustainable cleaning materials in funky designer packaging, but Method has created that market and turned the cleaning category on its head.
  1. Second, brands can bring research and development insights and innovations to life. Many businesses have an R&D pipeline, but bringing those future insights into the development of today’s products can be challenging. By asking, “How might my brand deliver these future innovations?” – in a way that resonates with my consumers’ (often anticipated) needs — brands can act as the super-highway for product innovation. Take Unilever’s Pureit, a water purifier for domestic use in those countries where unsafe drinking water is still the norm. The innovation behind this simple device comes from Unilever’s R&D laboratory in Bangalore. The brand is the mechanism which brings this potentially life-saving device to market
  1. Third, brands can create the conditions for wider change. This is an emerging area, and one which is potentially the most game changing. Nike’s business strategy is all about shifting to a closed loop business model. Such a model isn’t possible today: The infrastructure simply isn’t in place. How can Nike create the conditions to be able to make that shift over time? For one, its free Making app encourages designers to use the Nike Materials Sustainability Index Database, giving them the information they need to see the environmental impact of material choices. This is helping to drive demand for sustainable materials by empowering designers to make better choices.

Three strategies then: creating demand, bringing innovations to market, and influencing the system.  One planet.  For once, a ratio weighted in the right direction. One brand can adopt all three strategies, or switch between them depending on market and product. But a brand unwilling to experiment with any of these strategies, in my view, will become a brand from the past, not a brand that can last.

Sally Uren is CEO of Forum for the Future with overall responsibility for delivering the organization’s mission to create a sustainable future.  

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