Sustainable Brands 2013: Imagining—And Creating—a Better World

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One year ago, speakers at the Sustainable Brands Conference in London focused on three key themes: unified vision, collaboration and simplicity. In 2013, many speakers addressed the same themes once more. Does that mean nothing has changed? Or have we lost our imagination?

In fact, things have changed. Fewer business professionals question nowadays if sustainability (or triple bottom line, social responsibility, corporate citizenship, or whatever you want to call it) is good for business, and it is now more intrinsically linked to business strategy. More sustainability advocates are capable of proving with strong business cases that the investment pays off.

For instance, UK retailer Marks & Spencer says in its annual report that the net benefit generated by Plan A (M&S’s commitment to sustainable business) was £135 million, an increase of 29 percent over the previous year, and during the conference, Adam Elman, M&S Global Head of Delivery, said Plan A has delivered 193 percent return on investment. Not bad, is it?

Another example is Kering (formerly PPR, owner of brands such as Gucci and Puma), which pioneered a methodology to value the ‘ecosystem services’ it uses to produce Puma’s sports shoes and clothes. But it’s not all about costs: “At Kering, sustainability is seen as an opportunity. Sustainability creates value and stimulates innovation,” said Marie-Claire Daveu, the company’s Chief Sustainability Officer, who joined the business due to its CEO’s strong commitment to sustainability. “Leadership commitment is everything in this area.”[more]

Sustainable innovation was also high on the agenda and there were some inspiring stories such as one from Fairphone, which has sold all 25,000 of its smartphones that have been produced so far by making production more transparent and ethical. While the number is miniscule in comparison to the whole of the smartphone market, their aim is to “redefine the economy one step at a time.”

Ecover, the “powerful cleaning and washing products without the chemical nasties,” is piloting a project in Mallorca, Spain, to make cleaning products based on local waste—a project that could revolutionize the local ecosystem. This is in line with the circular economy concept that has been making its rounds or a few years now. Ellen MacArthur Foundation CEO Jamie Butterworth spoke about partners such as Philips, which is building and internal center of excellence on circular economy, and B&Q, which is committed to produce more energy than they use and to create 1,000 products based on circular economy principles.

So why are we still debating the same issues around collaboration and simplicity? As highlighted by Jo Confino, editorial director of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business, there are many great initiatives all over the world, but they are not properly connected and therefore not enough to change the world at the pace we need. Mondelēz International’s ‘coffee made happy’ program, for example, committed to invest a minimum of $200 million to empower one million coffee-farming entrepreneurs by 2020, providing skills and access to resources they need.

This is a beautiful and inspiring example, but according to Geraldine O’ Grady, Global Platform Manager at Mondelēz International, there are 25 million smallholders producing 80 percent of the world’s coffee, and many of them are giving up their land to seek better ways of living. Considering that coffee consumption is growing while coffee production is declining, there is a lot to be done to support the other 24 million small farmers (and guarantee we’ll be sipping espressos in the future). Indeed, collaboration among coffee businesses is paramount to guarantee their existence.

As for simplicity, we need to cut the jargon and stop praising ourselves for doing what we should have always been doing: looking after our people and our planet while creating profit for our shareholders. As brand professionals, we have known for a long time that if we want to engage our customers, we need a relevant and differentiating business and brand proposition, based on an internal truth and delivered consistently across the customer journey. We need to be responsive and present where our customers want and need us to be. And we need imagination to be good story-doers and good storytellers, so we can create business that can change the world for the best and share our knowledge with the next generations.

Paula Oliveira is Director, Valuation and Analytics, at Interbrand London.

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