The road to sustainability is not easy but Ogilvy’s Toby Harrison says there are many ways for brands to credibly build a more sustainable relationship with their consumers.

The issue of sustainability has finally started to get the attention it so richly deserves. However, as quick as brands and marketers are to jump on the sustainability wagon, the reality is that few people genuinely know what to do in the space and even fewer are actually making genuine inroads towards building sustainable businesses.  

In the absence of real progress, many brands are looking to marketing to fill the uncomfortable silence, the results of which are almost always remarkably similar – a tokenistic environmental effort that may (if they are lucky) momentarily intrude into the lives of regular folk, before quickly joining the rest of the dross in advertising/PR landfill.    

There is an uncomfortable truth that many companies are unwilling to face: sustainability is binary. The fact is that you are either sustainable or you are not – there is no in-between. If you are earnestly working towards the goal of being a sustainable business, then that is a noble and responsible endeavour that should be applauded. However, too many businesses and brands are fooling themselves (and no one else) in thinking their “cosmetic” sustainability efforts are genuinely making a difference.  

The road to sustainability isn’t an easy one and any business that wasn’t created to be sustainable from the very outset will have significant challenges to overcome. But the truth is, you are going to need to overcome them because customers are already starting to expect that your business is environmentally and socially sustainable.  If it isn’t, they are willing to choose someone else instead.  

So if your business is responsible and resolute about becoming genuinely sustainable, devote your efforts and energies towards that goal because you aren’t a sustainable business until you are. But that might take years to accomplish. So what do you do in the meantime?

Well, if you’d prefer to avoid making any more of that tokenistic environmental dross that goes into the ad/PR landfill, you could actually do something meaningful, useful and potentially more closely located to your brand’s sphere of influence too.  

The good news is that sustainability is a pretty broad church. But if your marketing efforts are only limited to “environmental” action, then you may be praying at the wrong altar. In fact, “climate action” is only one of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. That means there are 16 other areas you could explore where your brand could make a genuine and positive impact on the world.  

For example, Nike isn’t exactly the poster child of the ethical treatment of workers nor does it have an excellent track record (pun intended) when it comes to responsible production and consumption.

But what Nike has been good at is fostering a sustainable relationship with its consumers by honouring and supporting its athletes – Black athletes, female athletes, disabled athletes, athletes who were sidelined by illness (Lance Armstrong) and those who were sidelined by bigotry (Colin Kaepernick).

Nike’s celebration and support of athletes plays beautifully to the sphere of influence that is credible to the brand, in this case, sport.   And Nike has used its influence beautifully to champion an agenda of social progress through the lens of sport, which is exactly the kind of inspiring behaviour other brands can learn from.  

For example, if you are a bank, the sustainability actions you can take could be more powerful if they are located more closely to your sphere of influence. Given that banks are meant to be good with money, establishing a programme to create better financial literacy amongst teens is a far more credible, authentic and logical approach.  Plus, it is an action that a bank could appropriately support for the long term too.  

As mentioned, sustainability is binary – you either are or you aren’t, which is why so very few brands in the world can genuinely claim that they actually are.

But whilst you are on your way to net zero, remember that no matter what field your brand is in, there are plenty of ways that you could credibly build a more sustainable relationship with your consumers. And you could start right now.