Not an option

True sustainability may be some way off, but the business and PR benefits of a genuine ethical stance are real enough. Scott Billings assesses what impact this is having on major brands’ design strategies

Big business is entering a new phase in its efforts to become more sustainable. Declamations from the likes of Nike, Puma and Marks & Spencer speak of sustainability being embedded in their cultures, operationally and philosophically.

In the words of a Nike announcement earlier this year, this phase ushers in ’the next evolution of corporate responsibility strategy [moving] from a risk management, philanthropic and compliance model to a long-term strategy focused on innovation, collaboration, transparency and advocacy’. In others words, it’s more serious.

At the same time, consumer-facing brands are flexing and moulding in order to wear the clothes of corporate social responsibility a little more naturally. Recent years have seen a clamour of eco-ethical communications thrown around and on top of familiar brands, decorating them in Green, planet-friendly imagery. It felt, in many cases, a bit too convenient, and admonishments of Greenwashing quickly followed.

’I think a new theme is happening with corporate sustainability and brands,’ says Dorothy MacKenzie, director of branding consultancy Dragon Rouge. ’We’re going from something set apart from the brand, or based around token activities, to something that’s embedded in it. The only way of embedding sustainability principles and actions, and of avoiding Greenwashing, is to take them right inside the company.’

Until recently, only pioneer ethical brands really adhered to root-and-branch sustainable business practice, but it is moving into the mainstream. As MacKenzie notes, once a business as large as Walmart begins to rethink its supply chain, it’s pretty hard to ignore. Partly this is a result of public expectation and the ideological pressure of the day, but mostly it’s about ensuring that a business can thrive, remain profitable and exist in the future.

’There’s a triangulation of issues within a business for any potential initiative. Do consumers like it more? Is it Greener? Is it cheaper? If the answer to all three is yes, then you’ll get a green light,’ says Silas Amos, creative director at packaging consultancy Jones Knowles Ritchie. And, as MacKenzie adds, it’s no good if you run out of raw materials or if they become too expensive, so care for the environment ultimately makes business sense as well as moral sense. Marks & Spencer, for example, claims its wide-ranging Plan A programme has become ’cost-positive’, saving £50m in efficiencies during 2009/10.

Designers have an important role to play, too. Shell’s work with packaging group Blue Marlin increased manufacturing efficiencies and reduced
pack formats to cut plastic use by 9 per cent, equivalent to taking 45 million one-litre bottles out of the system annually. Coca-Cola’s colour management work with Anthem Worldwide rationalised colours globally to reduce printing materials and costs. And Puma’s two-year
collaboration with designer Yves Béhar created a fully recycled and ’boxless’ shoe pack system that slashes paper consumption by 65 per cent
and carbon emissions by 10 000 tonnes annually.

Whatever you’re saying on sustainability, it has to be in the brand’s language, coming from the mouth of the brand
Jonathan Davies, Butterfly Canno

Seeking efficiencies is just everyday good business practice, but the value it now offers in terms of public relations gives renewed impetus to finding better ways of doing things. And consumer brands need to embody this ethos in a believable, genuine and natural way, not just repainted with an ethical overlay. ’Whatever you’re saying on sustainability, it has to be in the brand’s language, coming from the mouth of thebrand,’ argues Jonathan Davies, director of packaging consultancy Butterfly Cannon.

MacKenzie believes corporate shifts are being woven into brand activity ’much more naturally and less self-consciously’ than previously,
resulting in more creative, coherent branding. ’An awful lot of communication around this area has been quite dull; one of the benefits of bringing
sustainability right into the brand is that you can get better communication and design,’ she says.

Unilever, for example, is using sustainability as a driver for company-wide innovation and growth, but this filters down to products individually.

So a tongue-in-cheek campaign for its US men’s toiletries range Axe promotes the ecological virtues of ’shower pooling’ in a way that is part and parcel of the brand (depicting one man sharing a shower with lots of women, naturally).

So from a branding and business point of view sustainability can be viewed as an opportunity. But from an environmental point of view, such
changes are arguably just tweaks to the system of mass consumption, not a fundamental shift in the way we live. Global manufacturing businesses and markets will not change comprehensively overnight. ’Many things are structured in a way that will change over time, but it will be a very long time,’ notes MacKenzie.

Puma’s chief marketing officer Antonio Bertone admits that the company’s global supply chain could not be radically altered for sustainability concerns. ’The supply chain is the lifeblood of the company – you can’t disrupt that process or it would take years to get to implementation and the cost would go back to the consumer. So our new packaging still had to behave like a shoebox,’ he says.

And there’s the rub. Change is happening, but it will happen slowly. Even Shell acknowledges that by 2050 global CO2 emissions must fall by at least 50 per cent, yet energy demand is expected to double. For all the good intentions, could it be too little, too late?

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