If it wasn’t before, sustainability is now the watchword for brands everywhere. Climate conversations were once contained to the corridors of Whitehall, think tanks and scientific institutions. Now they’re heard from the pub to the boardroom. But as companies are finding, being truly sustainable is much easier said than done.
Sustainability commitments are so normalised that brands like Patagonia have banned the word altogether. It’s brutally transparent about the challenges it is facing. Beth Thoren from the company argues: “The private sector faces a massive – and understandable – trust deficit on the back of widespread greenwashing, spin, and straight-out lying. Therefore, we must get a clear picture of our impact and use this to open honest conversations.”
She’s right. Every brand remains part of the problem, until the day they aren’t. Whether we like it or not, brands are responsible for the impact of the entirety of their supply chain – from the factories where their goods are packaged, to the vans that deliver them.
Meanwhile, the label of ‘sustainable’ alone is no longer enough for a business to woo investors. Even for household ‘purpose’ brands, as the hype around their model starts to die down, the traditional appetite for profits and robust forecasts returns.
These difficulties are keenly felt by SMEs, who are caught between the rock of profits and the hard place of being truly sustainable. We lack the financial clout to ‘green’ our entire supply chain, or hire teams dedicated solely to sustainability. Everyone mucks in, but with a full-time job to juggle as well.
Packaging is a classic example. We’re a B Corp and we take part in a carbon counting scheme. And the concept of our entire product is to raise awareness about a massive environmental problem. But we’re not saints. Our deliveries are still shrink-wrapped in plastic. Why? The alternative recyclable cardboard packaging is prohibitively expensive – a ‘green premium’ our business could simply not afford at this stage.
To add to the mix, brands who disrupted through their climate-friendly approach are now facing competition from established industry names, with large R&D teams and deep pockets.
But this is not an excuse to moan or throw in the towel. In challenge lies opportunity. The rise of ‘insetting’ schemes, where smaller brands partner with larger companies to green shared factories, is encouraging. SMEs should get around the table with industry leaders on R&D. Developing affordable biodegradable shrink-wrap, for example, would benefit everyone.
Simply, every brand must stick to open, honest conversations on their impact. Trust should now be the byword for sustainability. The more transparent we are about our footprint, how we’re reducing it, and what that process looks like, the more we keep the trust of our community. Otherwise brands will be in a race to impress. That will do their business, and the planet, no good at all.