Brands Should be Leading the Sustainability Agenda

Posted on January 31, 2014

Brands are amongst the most powerful influencers of human behaviour. We should embrace and work with them to encourage sustainability.

I’ve spent a lot of my career helping brands sell more ‘stuff’, so when I talk about sustainability it’s often met with a wry smile. They’ve got a point, but I can’t re-invent the past. I entered the world of advertising in the mid 1990s, when consumption was king. And boy did I help people consume – food, booze, cigarettes, oil, cars, airlines – you name it, I advertised it. And I loved it. I had glamorous clients, travelled the world and had a ball.

However, something changed. 10 years ago, I unexpectedly lost my job as the MD of a brand consultancy and with it the keys to life in the fast lane. With some unexpected time on my hands, I became fascinated by the relationship between brands, society and human wellbeing, and the work of people such as Thaler & Sunstein (Nudge), Mark Earls (Herd) and the ubiquitous Malcolm Gladwell. I began to study the role that business can play in human welfare and environmental issues. And this wasn’t limited to green initiatives or traditional definitions of sustainability but included much wider considerations such as the need to redefine growth, prosperity and economics in a way that benefits us all rather than just the privileged few.

Whilst re-reading an old copy of No Logo by Naomi Klein I realised that the answer was staring me in the face. If, as Klein argued, brands were such a force for evil, then surely if the message was right, they could be an equally strong force for good? The kind of behaviour change needed to fix so many of the problems we have in the world today can’t be achieved through government policy. In the West especially, our vision of civil liberty is such that most political intervention is met with suspicion or passive disobedience, even when compliance is in our best interests. However, replace government with a leading consumer brand and suddenly millions of people can be convinced to radically change their behaviour.

Whether we like it or not, brands are one of the world’s leading behaviour influencers. They know how to nudge, cajole and persuade millions of people to buy their products. So why not harness that power to initiate the behavioural changes we need to fight issues such as climate change, poverty, famine, inequality and encourage sustainability?

It’s not just about big brands and top down global communications. Anyone can stand up and say they support sustainability and run a few ad campaigns about it. Likewise it’s fantastic to see the great and the good of the ad industry trumpeting sustainability at Davos but it’s grass roots action that’s needed, with brands using intelligent bottom up strategies (what I like to call ‘positive disruption’) focused on genuine behaviour change that benefits the brands, the consumers and society all at the same time. This requires genuinely knowledgable and, crucially, committed marketers who have the vision and stamina to stay the course and the courage to stand up to the short term mentality of their colleagues in finance. There’s no reason why sustainability and profitability cannot go hand in hand, but it needs a long term perspective, rather than all eyes on the next quarter’s financial results.

It’s fair to say that capitalism itself is part of the problem, but too many marketers hide behind this as an excuse – “We can’t change it, it’s the system”, they say. Yes you can and no it’s not. Capitalism has many forms, both benevolent and predatory, but is not a force of its own. It is driven by human behaviour and attitude. If we can change these we will create the conditions needed to support a more responsible form of capitalism through the simple mechanics of consumer demand.

Brands are very powerful human motivators, and we must use their considerable influence to make the changes we so desperately need. We must work with them, help brand owners find the right balance between profitability and sustainability and communicate more responsibly with consumers. It’s in all of our interests.

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