The Value of Values

The second article in Earth Matters delves deeper into the idea of being a purpose-led brand, of committing to a cause and avoiding the pitfalls of “woke-washing” (the appropriation of ethical and progressive values as a form of advertising) by adopting an approach that is honest, transparent and collaborative.

Becoming sustainable is challenging: it takes time, resources, resilience and trial and error. Throughout, brands will be under heavy scrutiny by consumers who are empowered by information to see through shiny campaigns, and to call out any inconsistencies lurking beneath the surface. But the process is worth it, for people, planet and profit.

A recent study found that 83% of consumers prefer brands that demonstrate a better sustainability record, and 70% are willing to pay more for products and services that are eco-friendly or don’t infringe on human rights. [1]

Seeing this opportunity, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman put sustainability at the core of the corporate strategy and proved how it can deliver commercial success. [2] With clear, measurable goals [3] Unilever have reduced their environmental impact and, in 2019, its purpose-led brands outperformed the rest of the business. [4]

“I intend to build further on Unilever’s century-old commitment to responsible business. It is not about putting purpose ahead of profits, it is purpose that drives profits.”

Alan Jope, CEO, Unilever

So how can brands embark on a profitable sustainability journey, build trust, demonstrate their commitment and talk to their consumers in a meaningful and believable way? The idea is not for brands to be perfect, but to show a genuine, honest commitment to the cause, and a willingness to collaborate with all relevant stakeholders.

The fashion industry has been found guilty of some of the worst eco and ethical environmental crimes. It is responsible for 8% of all global climate impact [5] and runs on 98 million tons of non-renewable resources (e.g. synthetic fibres and dyes) every year. [6] Not to mention the inhumane working conditions of staff in developing countries and brands burning surplus stock to protect exclusivity.  [7]

Consumers are demanding change and brands new and old are moving towards open communication about ongoing environmental initiatives and supply chain transparency in a tangible, intuitive format… Sharing struggles and successes alike.

Theory and practice

New York fashion label Theory has launched Theory for Good, an initiative that traces, quantifies, and communicates the carbon footprint, workers’ rights, and animal welfare of its three staple fabrics: wool, linen and cotton. Products with a Good Wool, Good Linen or Good Cotton tag are 100% traceable, helping consumers to make informed sustainable purchase decisions.

The Theory for Good Clothes Tags

A purse full of green

In 2019, Prada became the first luxury brand to sign a loan with repayment terms conditional to meeting sustainability goals. Interest payments on the £42.9 million loan are determined annually based on whether the company hits three specific objectives: green certifications for its retail spaces, eco-training of employees, and use of recycled and recyclable materials.

Prada, The Sustainability Linked Loan

Sort by… Values

Launched in June 2019, Net Sustain is a curated platform – part of luxury fashion online retailer Net-A-Porter – that is dedicated to sustainability. It features 26 brands that meet at least one of five eco and ethical requirements and lets consumers search for products using these criteria, making it easier for them to find brands and products in line with their values.

The Net Sustain platform

Sharing these narratives with honesty and simplicity is key to connecting with today’s conscious consumers. However, as the research, science and overall coverage of sustainability are continuously evolving, consumer expectations shift accordingly… And brands that may appear to be doing good are easily caught out.

Striking a pose

For its first 2020 issue, Vogue Italia opted to nix photoshoots and their hefty carbon footprint, turning to artists instead and donating the money saved to a flood-damaged museum in Venice. However, many were quick to note that future issues will go back to the usual format, and that this one-off initiative does not address the fundamental pollution challenges of the industry.

Vogue Italia, January 2020

The Diesel Dupe

Breaches of eco-trust such as the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal are not easy to forget. It can take years of apologies and careful PR management before consumers will start to forgive. As the group’s former CEO put it, Volkswagen has “broken the trust” of the general public and this will cast a shadow on any future green efforts by the brand, no matter how well-intentioned.

Volkswagen, The Emissions Scandal

Don’t blow it!

Even something as “good” as renewable energy can turn out to have a bewildering downside. 2020 opened our eyes to the uncomfortable truth behind the afterlife of fiberglass wind turbine blades: these can be as long as a football field and are so hard to break down that – for now, at least – at the end of their lifespan there is nowhere to dispose of them except in landfills.

Turbine Graveyard in Wyoming

Another way of building trust is to cultivate and collaborate with a community of consumers, academic experts and other brands, even if they are competitors. This makes it possible to pool resources, knowledge, ideas and – most importantly – the determination needed to find and implement solutions.

Blockchain brew

Coffee giant Starbucks have been working with Microsoft to utilise blockchain and create a mobile app that allows customers to track the journey of the beans from their 380,000 farms in a simple, intuitive format. This is part of Starbucks’s wider digital transparency plan to ensure their beans are 100% ethically and sustainably sourced.

Starbucks Blockchain and Digital Transparency Plan

Robocrop to the rescue

Waitrose & Partners have not only been working with their supply chain to improve sustainability and ethical practices, they are also collaborating with researchers at several UK universities to help improve agricultural practices, biodiversity and soil and water conservation, including being the first UK supermarket to use robots to farm food.

Waitrose and Universities Tackle Global Food Security

Superkids united

Kashi by Kids are cereals and snacks that are the result of a co-creative effort between the brand and a group of Gen Z influencers – called the Kashi Crew – passionate about the environment, sustainability and healthy eating. This empowers young people to have a direct influence on a brand, its products, and how it reflects their values.

Kashi for Kids, by the Kashi Crew

Being a purpose-led brand with sustainability at its core resonates with consumers. A brand with a strong purpose not only helps the overall good of society but also lets customers know what they stand for and – when executed with coherence, dedication and transparency – it can create real business value.

Banners by Katie Squirrell


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