A growing awareness around sustainability is changing people’s buying habits and their expectations of how brands do business, with 73% of global consumers now believing that brands have a responsibility beyond profit.
In tandem, we are already seeing the impacts of climate change on our world - from plastic-infested oceans to the recent spate of hurricanes across the American continents. Poorly managed supply chains with unfair labour conditions are being exposed for their practices. To survive an uncertain future, it is imperative for brands to take action into their own hands.
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The question is: where does one begin? How can a brand build sustainability into their business model?
Here are a few key ideas for brands who want to begin this journey, drawn from my own years of experience working in this field, and with fantastic insight from Peter Braendle, Regional Director of Western Europe at Weleda. An international natural beauty brand, whose ethos is “working in harmony with nature and the human being”, Weleda has been pioneering a sustainable approach to business for almost a century.
Grass roots action is important to the sustainable movement, but real change starts at the top. Millennials and generation Z’s entering the workforce tend to be more environmentally-minded, so having a purpose-minded CEO will be an essential tool to attracting the best talent.
As Braendle told me, “I feel very privileged that we are privately owned by two foundations who guarantee our independence and for whom Weleda is not an investment that needs to generate a certain yield. They really subscribe to the values and this gives us the backing to really live the values that we want to be”.
It is vital that CEOs and senior management have a mission and purpose, as this trickles down throughout and is embedded into company culture.
Employees at every level of your company should be engaged with sustainability. Being actively involved in the topic should be a shared mission for everyone internally, just as creating a successful business is.
Weleda suggests that sustainability shouldn’t be delegated to a specific team, but a joint “responsibility and opportunity for everyone”. Collaboration offers everyone the chance to get involved and spur great ideas, as people often know the challenges and solutions of their own departments, Braendle explains.
The key here is communication — share sustainability targets and stories with your staff through meetings and newsletters and invite them to celebrate your company’s achievements too.
Just like clear communication, innovation and shifting the status quo are key to making a business more sustainable. This could be a little, from changing your materials or suppliers, to a dramatic overhaul of your business model. Embrace this change and reframe your challenges as opportunities to create a better future for your company.
“The biggest challenge for us is to keep on this continuous improvement. We have permanent working groups who set targets, monitor and review performance against these targets, and look for improvements,” says Braendle.
Becoming a more sustainable business is not only about taking bold steps forward. It is also about implementing small business changes where individuals together can help create greater impact.
For instance, can you introduce recycled paper into your office or perhaps go paperless altogether? In a world of e-commerce, is there a way to design more sustainable packaging? Conducting energy efficiency audits can help you find solutions to cutting down your carbon footprint — whether it’s introducing better lighting in your offices or switching to a renewable supplier. Sometimes the little changes can be as simple as buying locally-sourced produce and seasonal fruit for client meetings to cut down on packaging and food miles.
Business should be a force for good. Consider what issues and values matter most to your company. Another way businesses can embrace sustainability is to consider how to give back to people and the planet. This could be through donating a percentage of products or profits to a meaningful cause, or coordinating staff charity days so they become active volunteers within your community. The latter is an excellent team building activity that boosts morale.
For example, Weleda has donated proceeds from its recent open day to the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, an organization who works to protect the local environment around the brand’s UK headquarters.
Whether it’s asking your employees to vote for a charity they’d like to support, or championing a cause that aligns with your business’s wider purpose; there are many creative ways to help close the loop.
Building sustainability into the heart of your business is more than just responsible leadership. It is a great opportunity to connect with your consumers. Nowadays consumers are savvy when it comes to making educated decisions about the brands they purchase from — they cast their votes with what they buy.
In a crowded market, it is difficult for a consumer to differentiate between brands that are greenwashing and brands that are truly sustainable. Many brands make incredible commitments, but fail to communicate it to their audience. It is this gap that inspired the creation of our Butterfly Mark – an interactive trust mark that identifies brands that are committed to sustainability so consumers can shop with confidence.
“We love the Butterfly Mark as it helps us to bring the message across that sustainability can be luxurious and fun,” says Braendle. “Typically, sustainability is not associated with those things so it helps us convey that important message.”
Businesses are complex, so it’s important to remember that your company cannot suddenly transform into a sustainable enterprise overnight. For growing businesses, one of the biggest challenges is maintaining sustainability with scalability.
“As with all aspects of business and life, it’s easy to take the first few steps of progress. But it is a big challenge to keep on this continuous improvement,” Braendle explains. “We are adamant about not compromising our quality, despite all the supply and demand challenges we face as we expand. It’s easy to be true to your ideals as a small and young firm, but hard to sustain over 90 years with constant growth. We think Weleda has succeeded in that.”
An established business cannot simply shut down and start over, as there is a responsibility to employees, stakeholders and customers. Be sure to build patience and time into your strategy, starting with small changes and realistic targets that will take you towards your ultimate goal. As my co-founder Karen Hanton always says, “think like Edmund Hillary did when climbing Mount Everest: don’t focus on the summit, focus on how to take the next step.”