Image credit: Peter Gene, used under Creative Commons license.
My day job is in branding for good-for-the-world businesses, non-profits and organizations. So I get a fair few invites to attend events on "branding and sustainability", or "how brand can change the world". Often, these invites are wrapped up in layer-upon-layer of business jargon and corporate social responsibility speak. And yet we forget that the simplest, most important thing that any brand can do to change the world is pretty darned simple.
Why don't we all try telling the truth for a change?A Branding Conference with Substance?
I got to thinking about this after receiving a release about yet another branding event, this one entitled can brands and marketing deliver a sustainable future? While the idea of yet another round-table discussion on the topic is hardly thrilling, this one was more promising than most—being hosted by Forum for the Future, an organization that actually does something (see their inspiring work in System Innovation, for example) and featuring some major players like Ian Yolles, Chief sustainability officer of Recyclebank, and Jeffrey Hollender, Co-Founder of Seventh Generation.
Success Stories Are Nice. Failures Really Matter.
But while I'd be interested in hearing about the successes of leading sustainabile business pioneers, what would really get me pumped is hearing about their failures, their shortcomings, and the challenges they have faced. And I'd want to hear the same from brands that are not known as sustainability leaders too.
While accusations of greenwashing can be an important way to correct untruths in a marketplace that is full of them, I fear that an overly "them and us" attitude has lead some to withdraw from the sustainability debate altogether, or adopt an equally combative tone. While the debates and mistruths may reverberate on Fox News, the fact is that two-thirds of the world's biggest corporations put climate change at the heart of future strategy. So instead of seeing yet another slick, shiny yet largely insubstantial ad about an oil company's investments in natural gas, or an angry, accusatory campaign from the green groups that oppose it, imagine if we could actually hear a company tell the truth. A truth that went something like this:
We're an oil company. We built this business at a time when oil was plentiful, and climate change was not understood. Now we find ourselves in a world where carbon emissions are a serious problem; where peak oil is looking imminent; and in which we have to navigate a politically and economically viable path from being a major polluter and toward a more nurturing, regenerative role. Here's how we plan to do it, and here are the significant challenges we face. Oh, and by the way, yeah... we did fund those paramilitary groups in Nigeria.
OK, I'm not naive enough to assume that such an announcement is going to appear any time soon. And until it does, I hope the activists will keep bashing these corporations as hard as they can. But behind my unreasonable optimism is an important point—the only way that we have a chance of creating a sustainable economy is if businesses take an open, honest look at what they do. No business is even close to 100% sustainable yet—so think hard about both your victories and your challenges, and be prepared to share both.
Transparency Builds Better Brands
By sharing what it did and didn't know about solar, for example, Google has greatly advanced our collective understanding of the technology—and come out as a stronger brand because of it Similarly, in my own work we've faced questions about packaging choices for Larry's Beans, and rather than come out fighting, we are seeking to engage all stakeholders (including critics) in conversations about what our next steps should be.
Some Things Are Not Reformable
And oh, if your core business is fundamentally dependent on actively wrecking the planet, then you'd best either find a way to reform it from the ground up (good luck with that!), seek a new source of revenue, or accept that one day you'll either be regulated out of business, or the planetary and cultural systems on which your business depends for its survival will no longer be able to support you.
And that, I'm afraid, is the truth.
Can brands and marketing deliver a sustainable future, co-hosted by Forum for the Future and the Guardian Sustainable Business network will be held on October 12th in NYC.
More on Sustainability and Branding
Best Green Brands List Implies that Greenwash Works
Transparency for Green Brands: To Biodegrade or Not
Greenhushing Does Not Help Anyone: Why Green Brands Should Speak Up