UM’s Aditya Kilpady examines the concept of sustainability and how marketers should approach it through the lens of people, planet and profit.

Try this simple test.

Ask 10 people you work with, “What is sustainability?”, and you will get 10 different answers. This is not a test to judge intelligence. Nor is it a last round question at “Who wants to be a millionaire”, although it is indeed a million-dollar question.

We agree that sustainability affects everything from geopolitics and economies, to migration and wine lists. Sustainability has risen to the top of boardroom agenda, yet a topic hard to pin down. And the alphabet soup of acronyms – GHG, SDG, ESG, CSR, thrown in with CO2 and hydrogen from the periodic table – can make it baffling for marketers. So let’s unpack sustainability from every angle imaginable. 

What exactly is sustainability?

Sustainability comes from “to sustain”, which means to prolong or preserve. We can view sustainability as an approach to cause the least harm to the natural world. The UN World Commission defines sustainability as, “The development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations to meet their own needs”. Sustainability is not about consuming less or non-consumption. It presumes that resources are finite and should be used wisely with long-term consequences for future generations.

What sustainability is often mixed with

Sustainability and ESG are thrown around a lot. Let’s deconstruct both.

  • Sustainability is a broader concept, while ESG (environment, social and governance) is a framework to assess sustainable business practices.

Environment relates to greenhouse gas emissions, waste management, recycling, global warming and carbon accounting. Social is about human rights, labour standards, workplace health and safety, diversity, inclusion, and equity and inclusion. Governance refers to corporate ownership, leadership and board diversity, decision-making processes, corporate policies, risk and shareholder responsibilities.

Why sustainability is important for businesses

  • Builds reputation: When customers, opinion leaders, investors, policy makers and business decision makers see a company’s commitment to sustainability, they are more likely to view it in a positive light.
  • Attracts talent: In Asia-Pacific, 75% of employees expect their companies to follow sustainable business practices, according to a Bain & Company study.
  • Attracts investments: ESG investing in Asia is expected to double, according to an Accenture report. Singapore and India mandate listed companies to provide climate reporting.

What sustainability is all about

Sustainability is about balancing the 3Ps: people, planet and profit (some may argue a fourth P – politics – but let’s not get there).

Nobel economist Milton Friedman famously argued in 1970 that the only responsibility of business is to engage in activities to increase profit. Critics of capitalism claim that the economic system exploits the planet and is thus incompatible with mitigating climate change.

As a result, solving environmental problems remain a no-win dilemma: help the environment and hurt your business or harm your business to protect the earth.

Thirty years ago, John Elkington coined a new wisdom that promised the ultimate reconciliation of economics and environment. The “triple bottom line” helped business leaders expand their focus to include improving people and planet. Being green doesn’t come at the cost of doing business. Instead, it is a catalyst for innovation, new market opportunities and wealth creation.

It is hence possible for corporates to do well by doing good, pivoting from the capitalist’s “greed is good” to “do good”.

How marketers should approach sustainability

There are three opportunities through the lens of:

  1. People: Consumers expect brands to address climate change but understand that this isn’t a brand-only responsibility. Marketers must unlock collaborations by working with sustainability partners who are committed to climate action, such as NGOs, influencers, policy makers, media and the general public, for impact.
  2. Planet: The bigger and more complex the environmental issue, the more distant it gets. The language of communication should simplify distant environmental problems to be more personal, human and relatable.
  3. Profit: Companies that close the “say–do” gap (in intent and action) set themselves up for success. Action speaks louder than words, hence aligning the brand strategy around sustainability through “acts”, not “ads”, is the key to authentic outcomes.

The need to walk the walk

When 94-year-old Sir David Attenborough joined Instagram in 2020, he caught the world’s attention with the message "saving our planet is a communications challenge".

Belatedly, the world is acknowledging that nature is in crisis and sustainability is no longer a trend. There is an accelerated urgency in APAC as over 57 million people have been affected by climate disasters. Australian bushfires, Cyclone Gabrielle in New Zealand, floods in China and the current record-smashing heatwave across Southeast Asia have only exacerbated a post-pandemic world.

During a time when the world needs clear measures, marketers are tiptoeing sustainability journeys while being tokenistic in a greenwashing limbo. Marketing involves being passionate in winning customers. Often, this passion turns to over-enthusiasm and despite good intentions, leads into unwanted territory.

Moving forward, marketers must work with their communication partners to enhance collaborations with different sustainability stakeholders, make environmental issues more human and relatable, and align the brand strategy in real acts, not ads.

Only then will marketers have control of a grounded belief that businesses can flourish around a greater purpose.