Sustainability is going mainstream. What does that mean for businesses?

We spoke with Stephanie Fisher from responsible advertising agency Hello Earth about prioritising the planet, without compromising on profit.

A TRUSTED PARTNERSHIP ADVERTORIAL WITH HELLO EARTH.

The preponderance of evidence shows that sustainability is going mainstream.  Executives can no longer afford to approach sustainability as a “nice to have” or as solid function separated from the “real” business.  Those companies that proactively make sustainability core to business strategy will drive innovation and engender enthusiasm and loyalty from employees, customers, suppliers, communities and investors. – Harvard Business Review

“Sustainability” was once just a marketing buzzword or after-thought in business. Something to add to a campaign to show “we care” about the environment – a cursory recycling bin in the office kitchen or promotional materials printed on recycled paper. 

Then suddenly, it became more fashionable to give a sh*t about the environment. Consumer brands made more of an effort to be seen as eco-friendly, creating a tidal wave of greenwashing in supermarkets, as household names attempted to trick conscious consumers into thinking the product they chose that claimed to be “made with natural ingredients” or packaged “with recycled materials” was doing less harm to the environment than the product next to it on the shelf; only to discover, when reading the label, that those “natural ingredients” or “recycled materials” are not substantiated, or make up a small percentage of the whole.

“Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly.” – Investopedia

But things are changing, and they are changing rapidly.

Perhaps it’s “The Attenborough Effect”, or the “Greta Thunberg effect”. Or perhaps it’s because the generation that was taught in schools 25 years ago that we only had 50 years left until fossil fuels run out, is now of an age where they have buying power or are able to drive change within their sphere of influence. Whatever the reason, the world is asking businesses to do better when it comes to addressing their impact on the planet.

And it’s not just customers that are making this request, but investors, c-suite executives, employees, academics and partners too.

“Climate change is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude that threatens to multiply a broad range of sustainability risks. Organizations are under increasing pressure to respond. Many will need to sustainably transform their business models to find new opportunities and avenues for growth for their future business.” –  2020 Deloitte Review The Sustainability Transformation

In 2020, we witnessed activist investors putting pressure on fossil fuel companies to act on climate change, while governments around the world committed to ending fossil fuel projects and declared climate crises. We saw Australia’s largest retailer, The Woolworths Group, announce it would source its energy from renewables and expand its use of rooftop solar panels, while all of Australia’s Big Four banks announced they would stop funding coal

It seems those “in charge” are finally hopping aboard the sustainability train, but this time, in a much more authentic way, one which is bringing real change to their organisations, businesses or countries. 

In one study, more than 90 percent of CEOs stated that sustainability is important to their company’s success [1]. Unilever had already proved that ‘doing good is good for business – when its 2009-2019 Sustainable Living Plan delivered a total shareholder return of 290 percent [2].

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), at the heart of the United Nations’ (UN) “Agenda 2030”, clearly define the world we want. The UN developed these goals using a process that involved governments, businesses, civil society and citizens. It is clear, throughout the goals, that businesses – of all industries, of all sizes and in all countries – have a very important role to play in achieving that world, and even more so now, to help ensure a strong, green recovery following the global pandemic.

Strong international cooperation is needed now more than ever to ensure that countries have the means to recover from the pandemic, build back better and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals – United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The sustainability-machine performs best when every part is working together.

For businesses, that means employees, partners and agencies are not only singing from the same song-sheet, but are truly passionate and knowledgeable about the notes and chords. 

Hello Earth Agency is one such partner, which not only understands the importance of a sustainability strategy as an integral part of a business, but has also created bespoke tools and support to guide businesses to their sustainability True North. 

The eco-conscious digital advertising agency has been making waves amongst sustainable ecommerce brands, after recognising the social and environmental impact of the ecommerce industry.

Director, Stephanie Fisher, says: “We live in a world of over-consumption and as consumers, we have developed an expectancy of having ‘things’ quickly and cheaply. Some of the biggest ecommerce brands in our economy have built their businesses on this exact model. We understand the overarching need to curb consumer consumption, because of the devastating effects it currently has on our planet.

“As an advertising agency, our role is promoting attitudes, lifestyles and behaviours, which is why we understand the responsibility we have to the economy. While responsible products alone will not solve the consumption challenge, we believe consumer adoption and creating demand for evolving solutions is an important requirement in achieving broader ethical and sustainable practices. We are supporting brands in making a change from the bottom up, and giving them the platform to share their message,” Fisher adds.

A black and white photo of the team at Hello Earth Agency
The team at Hello Earth Agency. Photo credit: supplied

The consumer awakening: Once you know, you can’t unknow.

In listening to the Earth Collective community, we know the sustainability journey – at a consumer-level – almost consistently has this feeling of: “once you have seen, you can’t unsee”.

It might begin, for example, with awareness about plastic pollution in our waterways, which might lead to an individual’s reduction in consumption of single-use plastic. Before you know it, that person is seeing plastic everywhere, the weekly shop becomes a more mindful experience, they start reading labels, researching toxins, seeking out ethical brands, watching documentaries, following eco-conscious Instagram accounts, reading books like Naomi Klein’s On Fire, which in turn ignites a fire inside themselves; and they begin lobbying their local MP, their supermarket, their favourite fashion brand, asking them to make the right choices when it comes to ethical practices, protecting the environment, preventing climate change and reducing waste.

It is in this way, that every small change made by consumers matters – not just to their impact on the environment, but to the way ethical businesses operate. No longer can you “fake it til you make it”, when it comes to calling yourself a sustainable business – you will get found out, and you will get called out.

As Fisher says: “Sustainability is not an ideology, but a necessity in future-proofing a company for the 21st Century. The ecommerce industry and people in it need to take full responsibility for its output and impact, and help create the society changes that our world demands. This will come from healthier supply chains, recycling and second hand initiatives, a new era of packaging, and the adoption of circular thinking and product service systems.”

The tide is turning, but there is still a journey ahead.

Through working with conscious brands, Fisher has identified a very clear movement happening among consumers who have an appetite for buying better, which has meant the demand for brand transparency is on the rise. 

“I believe the biggest challenge we are facing is changing the industry standards. There needs to be more in the way of certifications and regulations to help empower consumers further. The perception of price and convenience continues to outweigh sustainability in the vast majority of purchase decisions. This comes down to a lack of education for consumers and enforced accountability for brands. Which is why we must influence people to shop better,” she says. 

3 facts we learned by watching Extinction: The Facts, presented by Sir David Attenborough

Can we afford to “be sustainable”?

The age-old argument against all things ‘sustainable’ has always been cost. 

At the consumer level, there is a perception that it’s more expensive to buy ethically-made clothes, or organic food, or natural skincare. And perhaps there is some reason in that perception – because the production of quality products without the use of chemicals or mass-deforestation, whilst also paying all your workers a fair wage, will ultimately cost a business a little bit more. 

But when Amazon reports a 37% increase in earnings and revenues of $96.15bn in the middle of a global pandemic, surely there is room there to absorb some of those minor “sustainability” costs and not on-charge them to the end-customer?

In reality, in most cases, it actually doesn’t cost more for the end-consumer to shop sustainably. 

A truly ethical product will – for the most – be of better quality and will therefore last longer, all while leaving a much smaller impact on the environment and humanity. 

As writer, stylist and consultant Aja Barber noted: “Last year, I did a comparison of fast fashion clothing items to ethical and sustainable brands. For several pieces the price tag was nearly identical. In one case the ethical piece was CHEAPER than the high street option. But if there is a price difference it’s usually between £5-10. You can buy very expensive ethical and sustainable clothing but with the options out there, you absolutely don’t have to. That assumption is steeped in lies and fast fashion wants you to believe that so that we feel that we are totally dependent on them. We are not. Also, if it works for you, second hand is so inexpensive in comparison to new clothes. Requires more time and energy. Fewer options for big bodies, but it’s not impossible and doing it online offers more options for everyone.”

We could list (and have listed) the many reasons why choosing organic produce, natural skincare or cleaning products, second-hand or ethical fashion; reducing your plastic consumption, wasting less and reusing more, are all beneficial for our health, the planet and our wallets – but that’s for another article. In business terms – when the value at stake from sustainability concerns (such as supply chains being affected by natural disasters as a result of climate change) can be as high as 70% of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation [3], the question really should be, can you afford to not be sustainable? 

So, how can a business of any size solidify its sustainability credentials.

According to Fisher, the key is identifying the specific sustainability problem that your brand solves, and the key solution it provides to support the betterment of people and the planet. 

Hello Earth holds this approach in such authority, that it has trademarked the term USSPTM (Unique Sustainable Selling Point).

Fisher explains: “A USSP can be far more compelling and far more engaging, because it’s far more needed than many of the traditional USPs (Unique Selling Points) that we’ve become accustomed to receiving in marketing campaigns.

“A USSP provides an immediate way to differentiate your product or service from the mainstream competition that is designing or producing in a traditional and less sustainable way. This is what we use to deliver an authentic and meaningful advantage to fuel our clients’ marketing strategies.”

What about the bottom line?

When it comes to ‘planet over profit’, Fisher believes it is achievable for businesses to be both profitable and look after the planet.

“This is an exciting time for social and environmental changes – by increasing your market share and profit growth, we can further fuel the evolution and investment in green advancements,” she says.

The team at Hello Earth Agency take part in a beach clean

The team at Hello Earth Agency take part in a beach clean. Photo credit: supplied

Start from the inside and start with passion.

One study found morale to be 55% better in companies with strong sustainability programs, compared to those with poor ones, and employee loyalty was 38% better [3].  Fisher agrees with this, and says that having a focus on doing good for the planet has created a positive and productive environment within the business. 

“As an agency, we stand for something more than profit. We are not a one-size-fits all agency and we will say ‘no’ to clients who are not the right fit. Our team is at the heart of our business and we operate with them in mind. 

“Hello Earth is not about one person. We are a collective group of people making a difference for our clients and the planet. We truly have purpose, and we are very fortunate to be surrounded by such talented team members and extraordinary clients,” she says. 

Thinking about launching your own independent sustainable business?

Fisher’s advice is to not overestimate the importance of your product performance and point of difference.

“The sustainability message alone is not enough to drive ongoing business success – you must have a unique selling point or solve a problem. Do your research, understand your market and develop a product offering that not only solves the sustainability problem but also has a clear identity in the marketplace. At the end of the day, your product has to do what it says it does,” she says.

For larger, established companies, Fisher’s advice is simple: “If you are not making changes in your business to deliver new and innovative solutions, you will be on the back foot of the increased consumer demand for sustainability and ethics.”

“Sustainable”: To be able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time – Cambridge Dictionary.

A business needs to be sustainable, it always has.

The word ‘sustainability’ has, in recent times, become inextricably linked to the act of protecting the environment. But a business has always had to be ‘sustainable’ to be successful, by having a long-term vision and the ability to weather the storms along the way.

The thing is that now more than ever, the latter definition of sustainability – that of ‘causing little or no damage to the environment’ – is vital to the longevity of humanity and, in turn, to whether or not businesses will survive. 

As activist and founder of The Rise Up Movement, Vanessa Nakate said: “Money will be USELESS on a dead Planet!!!”

97% of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely (i.e. greater than 95% probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and are proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented, over decades to millennia.

But the good news is, because humans are the cause, they can also be the solutions. Not only does this present a huge opportunity for businesses to act fast to play an influential role in turning the tide, but a long-term business strategy centered around sustainability is now essential to survive and succeed. 

After all, prosperous business relies on a prosperous, and alive, planet.

You can follow the work of Hello Earth via the agency’s website, Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn

 

Additional references:

  1. The Next Phase of Business Sustainability, By Andrew J. Hoffman, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2018
  2. “Unilever CEO announcement: Paul Pol- man to retire; Alan Jope appointed as successor,” press release, Unilever, November 29, 2018.
  3. The Comprehensive Business Case for Sustainability, Harvard Business Review, by Tensie Whelan and Carly Fink, October 21, 2016

Show more

Charli Ferrand

Charli wrote her first novel at the tender age of 9, then dabbled in the idea of becoming a professional ballerina for a few years, before returning to her love of writing, acquiring a BA (Hons) in Journalism, Film & Broadcast from Cardiff University in the UK. A three-month holiday in Australia turned into a 11 year residency, during which Charli cemented her career in PR & Marketing Communications working with some of the biggest brands in the world. She also gained her citizenship, discovered her passion for sustainability and eventually ended up coming full circle, combining her professional skills with her love of the planet and oceans into her role as Editor-in-Chief of Earth Collective. A trained journalist, experienced communications professional and qualified Mental Health First Aider, Charli has her finger on the pulse of the latest political and environmental developments around the world. You can find her writing about current affairs, political activism and mental health.

Related articles

Back to top button
Close