After living and working across different regions of the world for over 15 years I came to London 6 years ago with a focus on Sustainability and Responsibility, and I think it’s an exciting place to be.
There is a powerful shift in mindset
Sustainability is shifting from an obligation to an opportunity. More businesses are moving from using CSR as a compliance or tactical approach at the periphery of an organisation to offset impact, to making sustainability a strategic priority deeply embedded at the core of their organisation.
There is growing recognition that a long-term and multi-dimensional approach towards sustainability is needed given the scale and complexity of the challenge. Some businesses are not there yet, but with increasing expectation, momentum, the threat of government regulation and pressure from key opinion formers, the big question is how to change?
To embed sustainability within their organisation, Unilever and L’Oreal returned to their heritage, values and core business to help articulate how they could best contribute to their customers, business, the environment, and society.
Businesses already on the journey, having moved from a reactive to a proactive approach, are pushing even further. Pioneering organisations such as Ikea and Adidas, with well-established sustainability credentials at their core, are investing in new circular thinking to disrupt their own business models. Newcomers such as Mud Jeans with shared economy approach are redefining sectors.
Permission to change is increasing
There is pressure from Governments, NGOs and key stakeholders but it’s customers and employees who are increasingly demanding that businesses and brands behave responsibly. This groundswell of opinion creates a permission to change.
Research recently conducted by the department store Selfridges during their 2015 Project Ocean campaign revealed that both customers and team members expected Selfridges to make a contribution to society beyond profit and that this contribution should be central to their core business, a sentiment which has helped reinforce their ‘Buying Better, Inspiring Change’ sustainability strategy.
Marketing is key to building legitimacy for engagement and change
Historically marketing has been less involved with CSR than functions such as Sourcing, HR and R&D, or if it was involved it tended to be more at a philanthropic level.
Reframing an organisation’s purpose and core business in the context of sustainability can create a more logical connection between brands, business, society and the environment. When done well the connection for the consumer is clear, simple, authentic and very powerful. And with this comes the legitimacy for the brand to engage in different conversations, and encourage different thinking and behaviour.
Organisations who do this consistently are being rewarded for it. Recent results announced by Unilever show brands committed to sustainability such as Dove and Lifebuoy performing better, and Morgan Stanley’s business case for sustainable investing support this direction.
Marketing’s role is fundamental to injecting the necessary rigour, strategic thinking and creativity to express a brand’s purpose as a big idea to help open creativity, and mobilise activity across all functions of the business. Most recent examples that bring this direction alive are The Body Shop’s new global CSR strategy Enrich not Exploit, and the new global campaign by Axe challenging masculine stereotypes and empowering men to be themselves.
A dynamic and potentially rewarding journey
The journey of embedding sustainability in an organisation’s culture and core business is not immediate, linear or sequential across functions, markets or brand portfolios. It’s a huge hairy challenge and requires courage, leadership and commitment. I think the spectrum of engagement and the growing number of brands and businesses stepping up to the sustainability challenge and the opportunity in Europe makes it an exciting place to be right now.
Helena Wayth is the founder and managing director of A Bird’s Eye View, a strategic marketing and business development consultancy working at the intersection of commercial, social and sustainable development.