The Sustainability Buzz

Does Sustainability Have a Branding Problem?

Sustainability and BrandingEarlier this month, this article from GreenBiz wandered through our Twitter feed.  The author talks about how there’s a common observation that every organization has its own definition of “sustainability.”  The author goes on to suggest that perhaps it’s not that they are different definitions but rather different perspectives on the same idea, and maybe the solution is to crowdsource a definition that works for everyone so that we’re all working towards a common goal.

This led us to think that maybe sustainability has a branding problem.  It isn’t the first time we’ve had this thought.

When we talked to a prominent local public servant two years ago about organizing the Lehigh Valley Sustainability Summit, one of his comments was, “Well, the first thing you need to do is come up with a better name than sustainability.”  His position was that because it wasn’t clearly defined, it could be anything or nothing.  While this comment may seem ludicrous to people inside the vast sustainability echo chamber—“he just doesn’t get it,” they might say—the problem is exactly that:  he doesn’t get it.  And if he, a man who has demonstrated his commitment to many of the major tenets of sustainability while in public office, doesn’t get it, perhaps there are others who don’t, either.  Many others.

And from that perspective, sustainability suffers from a lack of articulation of the brand proposition.  What are we supposed to get from sustainability?  What is sustainability’s promise to us?  A better future?  An opportunity to feel good about ourselves?  Or is there something more tangible associated with it?  If I don’t know what I’m going to get with a product, I’m probably not going to buy it.

For most people, it’s hard to sell them on altruism alone.  It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing.  It’s just that in a world where our time is so limited and unsustainable choices are largely still easier, cheaper or more familiar, it’s hard for most people to opt for harder, more expensive or unfamiliar without a pretty strong incentive.  And because sustainability lacks a clear brand proposition, it’s hard to know what that carrot is at the end of the stick.

Part of the problem is that the word “sustainability” is unwieldy.  In many instances, “green” has become a shorthand, but that word still carries a bit of a crunchy, treehugger curse with it, and many people just don’t want to be seen as outside the mainstream, despite what the market researchers tell us about how consumers are gravitating towards green products and identify themselves as “green.”

In the corporate world, sustainability is more a part of the vernacular even if it is unwieldy, and a good portion of larger corporations have integrated sustainability into their business model to varying degrees.  But as the GreenBiz article suggests, the definition of corporate sustainability is still unclear, let alone the value proposition.

Most organizations with a robust sustainability strategy understand that the value that sustainability provides is greater than just an opportunity to do right by the earth and feel good.  Indeed, they realize that sustainability enhances profitability, provides competitive advantage, fosters innovation and saves money.  But if sustainability truly does all this, why hasn’t every company adopted a robust sustainability strategy?

Perhaps the answer lies in the way we communicate about sustainability.  Instead of it being a part of everyday business practice, it has a certain otherness about it.  It has its own language, which not only serves to alienate those who don’t speak the language, but it also ghettoizes sustainability as something that is an add-on—a possibly time-consuming and costly add-on, and maybe one that’s really just for the hippie crowd—instead of just business as usual.

Of course, some of this is by design.  Business is always looking for “the next big thing.”  It’s hard to sell sustainability as something novel if it’s packaged as operational efficiency, risk mitigation, environmental stewardship and community engagement.  Naturally, we know that sustainability is more than just the collection of those things, but for the sustainability skeptics and neophytes, perhaps approaching sustainability from a more familiar perspective, and not one with its own coded language and secret handshake will help bring more companies and people into the fold.

And ultimately, that’s the end game, right?  Sustainability needs to be a big tent with space under it for everyone.  Our very future depends on it.  So how do we fix sustainability’s brand problem?  We’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have the answer to this question, but we do have some ideas of how to start.

  1. Stop talking about sustainability like it’s a mythological creature. Sustainability needs to be real for people to latch onto it.  Start finding ways to better articulate how sustainability makes people’s lives more livable on a daily basis.
  2. Meet people where they are. So often, individuals and businesses have already started down the path to being more sustainable, but perhaps with different motivations than the environmental or social ones we may expect.  Applaud those motivations and find ways to build on them.
  3. Incentivize, don’t chastise. We’ve been dependent on the stick for so long when it comes to behavior change.  We need to find a way to focus more on the carrot, for both businesses and individuals.
  4. Make being sustainable easier, cheaper and more familiar. We need to move to a world where we don’t pay a premium for more sustainable products or have to do more work to be sustainable, a world where sustainability just is.

We’re sure that with the right amount of crowdsourcing, we can solve this branding problem.  Have some ideas?  Let us know in the comments.

One Comment

  1. Kate Richard
    Posted 27 March 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Great thought-provoking article! Thanks!!

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