Updated: Jun 14
A sustainability-lens on brands helps redefine what we mean by "value"
Brands - and branding people - are having a miserable time with sustainability. What should be a gift has become a missed opportunity.
Instead we get diversionary tactics ("recyclable coffee on airlines!"), 'sustainable' production nonsense ("carbon neutral coffee!") and an obsession with risk management in the booming ESG industry (meaning managing the financial risk of doing something good). No value creation. No North Star. No impact. A bunch of violin-playing tactics adding up to sweet FA whilst vast swathes of the world are on fire.
But rethinking business - and especially brands - through a landscape lens highlights just how vast much of a reset opportunity 'sustainability' really could be.
Maybe brand world doesn't really understand "value"?
Brand strategists strive to link their strategies to some kind of measurable outcome. 99 times out of 100 that will be a financial or a growth metric. Read a strategic case study from any major brand shop and there will be a scattering of soul destroying statistics thrown in which say "we helped this brand to grow" - sell more stuff, get more customers.
There are numerous proxy metrics for this kind of 'result' - from the abject ('online mentions') to the lazy ('30% growth'*) to the indefensible (all the brand valuation nonsense). Whether it's portfolio extension or retaining market leadership or redefining categories for brand world "winning in the market" has become the sine qua non of brand strategy. (*"since 2000")
This does a massive disservice to "value" because it subordinates brands to the narrow definition of "value" in the economic sense. "Value" meaning Financial Value. And nothing more. Value that can be measured. As if only value that can be measured counts.
There is a ferocious debate triggered by
all this - essentially that "growth" as defined by narrow financial value metrics is a *bad thing* because it drives extraction (which is true) and that therefore "de growth" is a *good thing* (which depends on what the hell you mean by "degrowth"). I'd much rather we stopped abusing language and rescued the word "growth" from meaning just "economic growth". It used to mean so much more, and still should.
What does the world need from you?
As I get deeper into 'how business can do good' I feel just how diminishing and small that metric version of "value" really is. For brand world to have become so fixated on "value" only insofar as it affects business metrics is to throw away the very thing that makes brands so very special in the first place.
My favourite bit of kit from Wolff Olins was a simple question intended to get to the heart of the relationship between a brand and the world. "What does the world need from you?" is a disarmingly simple question. And if you really try to answer it fully (as in what does the "world" need from you) then you open up all sorts of possibilities.
But inevitably most of the time brand strategists don't get to that big question - defaulting instead to a very small concept of 'world' as 'customer' or more often than not 'justification of business model' leading to embarrassing self serving nonsense ("a world where healthcare has no limits" WTF?)
Humans have lost touch with what is really valuable
I've been working in environment/sustainability for a few years. It's a massive area - complex, frustrating, fragmented. Climate change and biodiversity loss are such vast challenges that it's all too easy to feel overwhelmed by them. Getting over the 'awesomeness of the problem' and into what we, specifically, can do about them is in itself a massive journey.
At the heart of it all is the disconnection of humankind from nature - the "othering" of nature and the planet by humankind. Since the beginning of human time we have deemed ourselves to be above, different from, superior to, "have dominion over" all living things. (maybe the fear of AI is no more than a fear of getting knocked off our self appointed perch as apex species).
Our economic system is a product of this fundamental belief in our superiority - that the world is there for us, and that we are somehow above it. Hence our limitless extractive behaviour. And then our recasting of ourselves as economic beings. Cogs in the machine. Humans as valuable only insofar as we consume or we produce.
And then industrialisation is what really severed the link between us and planet. We left our communities to go into factories. We lost touch with the communities and the places we came from.
We lost touch with nature.
We forgot what matters.
We lost our soul.
We forgot what value really means.
Sustainability is an opportunity for brands to recapture what value really means
Take the strategy question - what does the world need from you? - and really try to answer it from the planetary perspective. An endless set of value creating opportunities are revealed.
Instead of looking at a brand from a customer perspective, look at it from the landscapes where that brand has impact. Like this place....
This place is Bayan Ovoo in the South Gobi - specifically some of the 50,000 odd hectares of pasture used by the Shurkhan Zalaa herder group. The landscape has deteriorated significantly over the past 30 years - a combination of climate change (unpredictable rain, terrible winters) and overgrazing caused by excessive animal numbers driven ever higher by the demand for ever higher volumes of cashmere. Good Growth is working with herders and brands to reverse these effects. (You can get more of a picture of the place here).
Brands have got used to treating sustainability as a challenge, as a problem to be solved, as a risk to be managed. But it's so, so much more than that. These landscapes are where the unvarnished impact of supply chains on nature can be seen. And the opportunities. Starting at this end - at where your brand hits the planet - is where small changes in how brands interact with landscapes can shift them from extractors to catalysts for regeneration.
It's a huge opportunity for brands to do something really good.
Sustainability - impact on landscape and especially biodiversity - provides us the opportunity to recapture our souls. The chance to escape our benighted existence as consumer-bots and producer-bots. To rediscover a much bigger - and better - notion of value.
The intrinsic value of place.
The value of beauty.
The value of wonder.
The value of origin.
The value of story.
The value of oneness with the world around us.
Part of the world, part of nature, not distinct from it. Identity value.
Value that cannot be measured.
I believe this is a completely new playbook for brands
Sustainability as value creation platform.
Value beyond - way beyond - the financial.
Story of origin as a means to connect to places
Human connection to the world. (Not the market).
I love this idea. The practice of brand building as the practice of reconnecting to what really matters. Brand building that rekindles a healthy relationship to the planet. Brand building that takes us out of our confected existence as economic beings and reinstalls us where we belong - as part of something much bigger and much more wonderful.
And it shifts brands from wrestling with sustainability as a problem and instead treating it as an opportunity to create real value.