A new agenda for sustainable brands

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Guest editor Simon Goodall from OPX looks at sustainability and branding, and a shift in thinking about what sustainability now means for brands and why it matters.

For the past 10 years and more we have been talking about sustainability and its impact on brands. For us it’s always been a major issue, influencing much of the work we do, but the landscape is changing. The big question now is what does being a sustainable brand mean and why does it matter?

The 2008 Agenda

Before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 carbon and climate change were dominant issues. Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ had made a major impact and every forward-looking CEO in the world was trying to define a position on sustainability for their business.

Two things were apparent at this time:

• Sustainability largely meant ‘environmental sustainability’. In that sense it was often seen as a rather isolated subject not as something that was core to how an organisation thought or acted.

• For some organisations the commitment was relatively superficial. The focus was often on internal initiatives like office recycling which were easy to implement at minimal cost. At its most extreme ‘greenwash’ meant that some people were making a lot of noise about very little.

In architecture and construction the focus was always more substantial. The influence of planning legislation played a big role, forcing developers and the whole construction supply-chain to address issues around materials, energy, use of technology and building processes. Schemes like BREEAM (which we first branded 20 years ago) led the way – providing a firm basis for measuring success – but sustainability increasingly impacted the whole sector.

For some, like building engineers, this was to be expected. Legislation and growing commercial awareness meant that for the likes of Arup and AECOM sustainability had to be near the top of their brand agenda.

Carpet tile manufacturers were less obvious enthusiasts, producing large quantities of oil-based products that generally ended up as non degradable landfill. InterfaceFLOR’s approach was therefore all the more impressive. They re-engineered their whole business – from products, to processes to logistics – around a truly sustainable approach. For them sustainability didn’t just mean thinking about environmental impact. It meant thinking holistically about a social, economic and environmentally sustainable future and making this the core theme of the brand they developed with us. It’s this broader agenda that’s coming to the fore now.

The new Agenda

Last month’s excellent BRE conference ‘Retrofitting the Future’ focused on looking at ways to improve the efficiency and environmental performance of existing homes. Whilst the focus initially seemed to be on environmental benefits it quickly became apparent that we were talking about much wider sustainability issues like fuel poverty, economic growth, employment, health and new technology. This is a significant change, with social and economic sustainability becoming fully integrated with the environmental agenda.

On a similar theme we’ve been working with the Energy Saving Trust lately on a range of campaigns that aim to help people and businesses reduce energy consumption. Whilst the principles behind this remain rooted in carbon reduction, the messages are now firmly focused on economic benefits – essentially helping people to reduce their fuel bills.

These examples show that ‘sustainable’ can no longer be another way to say ‘environmental’. Instead it’s about a wider awareness of the realities of life in the 21st century – social, economic and environmental. Thinking and talking about these issues in a joined-up way is much the most powerful approach. It’s also how brands who see sustainability as important can create a distinctive and relevant position for themselves going forward.

Three things to keep in mind:

• Architecture and construction is already a sophisticated sector in terms of sustainability. Superficial actions and ‘greenwash’ branding will be seen for what they are, now more than ever.

• Talking about a pure environmental agenda is unlikely to gain much traction now. Money talks and it’s the economic benefits that will drive actions from government, business and individuals.

• Smart organisations are increasingly talking in terms of a win-win. Environmental innovations and technologies can be a driver for substantial economic and social benefits. Brands that focus on this will be the sustainable leaders moving forward. Knauf, InterfaceFLOR, BRE and Arup are all good examples of organisations who are doing this.

Guest post from Simon Goodall, Client Director/Partner at OPX

OPX is a London-based studio that helps businesses of all kinds develop their brands and improve the effectiveness of their communications. Work includes brand strategy, visual identity design, verbal identity programmes, and communications implementation across printed, digital and environmental media. Find out more about OPX on twitter @OPX_london

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