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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Brands are getting sustainability wrong

The word of brand is terrible at dealing with sustainability.

Google "sustainable brands" or "sustainable branding" and you'll be met by an incoherent mishmash of tactics.

It is a massive miss from the "brand" industry - where I have spent a good part of my life.

Grappling with sustainability is complex and important for us all. So it *should* be the perfect platform for the people in brand to help steer organisations to a brighter future.

Because that is what brand strategies do: cut through complexity to get to the core of what really matters and specifically how an organisation relates to the rest of the world.

Sustainability ought to be brand strategy on steroids. But instead brand world has comprehensively failed to pick up the ball.

There are 3 areas where it's going wrong. Treating sustainability as a marketing task; overhyping damage reduction as 'sustainable' production; running scared of risk.

1. Parking "sustainability" in the marketing function is a cop out

Any effective sustainability strategy has to address, at a bare minimum, how the organisation makes stuff and what it makes. Even better it should encompass how resources, especially finance, are deployed. And best of all it ought to focus on the impact the organisation has on the outside world.

Marketers aren't allowed near *any* of that. So if you don't give a crap about sustainability make it the responsibility of the marketers.

Then make the brand look even more out of touch by compelling your marketers to go find good things to say at the periphery that demonstrates some kind of progress. So, for example, despite aviation contributing 2% of global warming and being light years away from getting its act together we get to see this kind of nonsense:

no amount of coffee recycling is going to erase 2% of global emissions
"And that's not all!"

2. Hyping supply chain actions as "sustainable" when they aren't

In generations to come the misuse of language in sustainability world is going to be a big part of the post-mortem (assuming we get to have one). Top of the nonsense tree are "sustainable production" and its cursed child "sustainable consumption".

There is nothing wrong in cleaning and greening up supply chains. Our globalised system has made them so opaque that all sorts of nasty things have wormed their way into them - from excessive use of chemicals to exploitation of workers to polluting factories to large scale money laundering (really).

But 'cleaning stuff up' is not the same as 'sustainable'. And because a lot of the supply chain is out of reach and out of sight for most brands they rely on 3rd party certification of what goes on at the 'other' end.

That's where it goes wrong. The supply chain improvement work that is - at best - work-in-progress get translated into hyperbolic kite-marks that hoodwink consumers into thinking what they are buying is "sustainable", when it isn't. It might be "less bad" but that does not equal "sustainable".

There's a huge amount of effort going into establishing a set of market facing certifications that are simply not good enough. As an example take a look at this:

list of "sustainable" (not really) cashmere sweaters

Read down the list of recommendations. There is a blizzard of different certifications and self audited or just plain asserted promises. Then look at the prices for most of them. Raw cashmere is around $35 per KG, washed and initially processed between $80 and $100 per KG. A $50 cashmere sweater is either a miracle or someone is getting thoroughly exploited.

So let's be clear. Adding a bit of circularity and recycling to your process is a good thing. Removing some chemicals and nasties from the grubby bit of the chain is a good thing. But...if your business model is "make large volumes of stuff as cheaply as possible" no amount of recycling is going to undo the damage your supply chains wreak on the landscape.

Production systems are extraction systems. Mass production systems are mass extraction systems. There is no such thing as "sustainable production" unless it is governed by and within the constraints of nature.

And arguing (as some of these brands do) that flogging mass extractive cheap cashmere is "democratising luxury" is not only lazy, it's offensive. If the price of democratising luxury is the desertification of the rangelands through overgrazing then let's not democratise it.

Also - a major bugbear of mine - check out the language. Goats are "hand combed" - sounds lovely doesn't it? Sounds like a massage? But do it too early and it's painful. The cashmere isn't ready to come away. So click on this to see (and hear) what hand combing in action is really like. (Do not click on this if you are sensitive).

3. ESG, risk minimisation and compliance

The clearest sign that brand world hasn't got its act together on sustainability is the capture of the topic by reporting and finance. Somewhere along the line sustainability has become a compliance issue. A risk to be dealt with.

"ESG" (a mini industry now with multiple factions) is not about fixing problems but reducing bottom line risk. This is wrong for all sorts of reasons - it seeks to standardise something that cannot and should not be standardised; it subordinates sustainability (and especially nature) to finance; it isn't embedded - so when push comes to shove missing your financial goal will get you fired, missing your sustainability goal won't.

Producing (admittedly) very beautiful impact reports every year is a lovely thing - but we need the people in brand world to do a heck of a lot more than that. Otherwise what are they for?

This is all a massive miss.

First up - don't get me wrong. Greening up supply chains and making your impact transparent is all a good thing. I'm just saying that now - a decade or so on - it's not nearly enough.

Second - brand people need to stop screwing around trying to turn sustainability into a branch of marketing. Do what you do best and get back to fundamentals. If brand is going to be at all useful in the next few crucial decades it needs to get into the weeds of the whole business from end to end and start with how that business impacts the outside world.

(And 'sustainability branding' needs to be hurled out of the window.)

Third - and most important. Stop treating "sustainability" like an unexploded bomb. Yes it's hard and yes it's systemic and yes it's important. But it is NOT simply a risk to be managed. It is a once in a generation chance to reset and to get on the front foot.

Sustainability is an opportunity

Because brands are running scared of sustainability they are missing all sorts of opportunities to do good. Not by treating sustainability as a product feature but by treating it as the foundation for the whole brand. A reset in how the brand - the whole brand - interacts with the world.

Take my cashmere example for instance.

The goats are getting combed at the wrong time. The cashmere isn't ready to fall off their skin yet because they still need it. It's still cold. But global cashmere operates on fashion

cycles not natural cycles. So supply chains need that unwashed cashmere to be washed a good couple of months before the goats are ready to shed. So they get combed at the wrong time. And it hurts.

Now - it takes no effort at all (but a major mind shift) for a cashmere brand to say that they will time their season for when nature makes it best for the goats. This would be a major shift - pioneering, market leading - and good for everyone. Seasons dictated by nature not whim.

Then applying this across the whole business becomes an operating principle. Do no harm.

Brands can do this if, and only if, they look at the whole process from the landscape out. Doing what's right for nature and the landscape and flexing their processes to fit those priorities. That's real sustainability. Doing the right thing for the planet.

Value - at an enterprise level.

What I'm talking about here is whole organisation brand strategy. Not treating sustainability as a production challenge or a product feature but as an operating principle.

Being prepared to change how we do things, how we make stuff - and crucially - being prepared to change what we make - for the good of the planet.

That's the future. It means brands defining themselves not by the products they make but by their relationship with the world.


Taking a landscape approach is the next frontier. It lifts organisations out of their world, which is their chain, and puts them out in THE world. Which is what we all now need to take care of.

The brands that do so will find myriad opportunities to do good.

Doing simple things that make everyone's lives, and their own brand story, better.


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