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Christophe Schilling headshot

Why It’s Time for Brands to Breathe Life into Sustainability

Sustainability is now crucial for many consumers, and products like plant-based protein and compostable sneakers are popular - with demand outpacing supply.

Sustainability isn’t novel anymore. 

For the last 20+ years, I’ve seen many brands do things that were “good for the environment” seemingly as a public relations exercise. In an era of greenwashing, a creek cleanup or basic recycling program could wash away the stain of using millions of tons of crude oil each year to make everyday products. Parents could feel good about putting sunscreen on their baby from a recyclable bottle, while unaware that the sunscreen itself was derived from crude oil — and so was the bottle.

Real change was slow going. Why? Companies didn’t know how to make their products more sustainable and the technology to do so often didn’t exist. Nobody talked about where their products came from, and when the beginning of life story was grungy and filled with fossil fuels, it’s no surprise companies didn’t want to shout it from the rooftops. More importantly, brands weren’t convinced consumers cared or would pay for sustainable products. That made it risky — and hard work. And that ended the conversation.

How times have changed. Now, sustainability is a real, non-hype priority for global consumers, and products like plant-based meat and compostable sneakers have become popular. Consumers want to know where their products come from, and having renewable, naturally-derived or recycled ingredients is increasingly a “must-have.” Ninety percent of Millennials say they’ll pay more for products made from sustainable ingredients — or are “made clean” — and more than half of consumers say they’d pay more for sustainable products designed to be reused or recycled.

The problem is clear: consumer demand for sustainability has outpaced what the industry is supplying. But it’s not because making more sustainable products is too hard, or too expensive, or requires technological wizardry. Biotechnology today can transform renewable sources like plants or agricultural waste into the chemicals and ingredients that make up our everyday products. By swapping out crude oil, natural gas and coal — the traditional inputs — for renewable sources, we can often reduce the greenhouse gas emissions related to making our everyday products by more than 50 percent.

Best of all, today’s technologies are delivering products that are identical (and often superior) in terms of quality and experience. For example, materials company Novamont in 2018 announced a partnership with the United Kingdom grocer Co-op to produce 60 million plastic grocery bags with Novamont’s compostable replacements for single-use plastics. Additionally, manufacturing company Aquafil is transforming discarded nylon into Econyl regenerated nylon that is exactly the same as new nylon and fully recyclable. Major fashion brands including Prada, and Burberry  are partnering with Aquafil to create luxury branded products like bags and coats.

With big brands making headlines for adopting natural ingredients and improving supply chains — and consumers loving it — why aren’t brands doubling and tripling down on sustainability? There’s still plenty of talk — and not enough action. [MS2]  

To be fair, overhauling an entire supply chain isn’t easy, particularly with billions of capital sunk into manufacturing assets than don’t deliver sustainability profiles in line with what is demanded today, and there’s no one size fits all solution. Corporate inertia and risk-aversion remain some of the most powerful forces in the world. Yet the research shows that it’s actually risker to NOT embrace sustainability. Sustainability wins in the marketplace. Deutsche-Bank analyzed more than 2,000 empirical studies since the 1970s and found that about 90 percent of ESG investments deliver superior returns.

And we’re seeing a new generation of successful companies with sustainability at the core of the business – and they are being rewarded by the consumer. Consider the shoe company Allbirds — which sold more than a million pairs of shoes made from naturally-sourced fibers and ingredients in their first two years after launching. The brand has become synonymous with sustainability — and was recently valued at over $1 billion. Companies like Allbirds are a new force that mainstream brands must respond to. 

The best way for established brands to stay ahead of these insurgent sustainability leaders and seize this burgeoning market? Get involved — and breathe life into sustainability initiatives.

Initiatives like Project EFFECTIVE are bringing together major brands like H&M and Vaude to make fibers and plastics from plant-based ingredients, which in turn make up everyday products like clothing, carpet and outdoor gear. These meetings of the minds to share ideas and overcome obstacles (logistical, cultural, financial) mark real progress taking sustainability from a charming niche to an economic powerhouse. Critically, these discussions also help brands hold each other (and themselves) accountable for getting it done. 

The technology is here today for brands to begin slashing the oil consumed to make their ingredients and take command of the surging — and real — market for sustainable products. It’s up to us to band together and deliver.

Image credit: Allbirds/Facebook

Christophe Schilling headshot

Christophe Schilling is the founder and CEO of Genomatica. He is also the chairman of Biocom, the largest advocacy organization for California’s life sciences sector, and serves on BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section Governing Board. He previously served on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology. Christophe holds a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego and earned a B.S. in biomedical engineering from Duke University.

Read more stories by Christophe Schilling