Sustainable Brands Istanbul: What brands must do to ensure their sustainability initiatives succeed

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at Sustainable Brands Istanbul, and I wanted to share some of the insights from the event. We heard several fascinating presentations from speakers such as Marc Mathieu at Unilever (lower image) and Christiaan Maats, the founder of OATS shoes that both highlighted how sustainability has become a way of being rather than doing business. Among the discussions several key issues stood out:

1. What is Sustainability? As the conversation around the role of sustainability in business matures at different paces around the world, the definition of sustainability invariably becomes an issue. For many companies its starts off being understood as merely the green initiatives of a company. Over time, it expands to approach a comprehensive program of environmental responsibility that extend from the production of raw materials, to the supply chain to distribution and marketing. Ultimately, however, sustainability needs to be understood as even broader than the environment. Businesses cannot survive in societies that fail and our planet need greater social responsibility from business, and so I believe we must so we must work towards a sustainable practice of capitalism that is economically, socially, ethically and morally, as well as environmentally, responsible.

2. Is bigger better? The was much discussion around the contrast between sustainability efforts by national brands and efforts made of offices of multinational corporations. In a sense being a multinational is a double-edged sword for many multi-nationals are now readily embracing sustainability which is being driven by corporate communications in the head office. While such efforts are to be applauded, it often means that regional offices are left without sufficient sustainability support because the presumption is that this has already been handled by HQ. In contrast, these regional offices need the direct support of their headquarters both in terms of translating the company’s sustainability vision consistently around the world but also in terms of bringing that vision to life specific to the region, its industries and audiences.

3. Who’s in Charge? There was a lot of fascinating discussion around whether Corporate Communications, often responsible for the thought leadership of a company, or Marketing, was ultimately in charge of sustainability efforts. To my mind it is a false separation for when sustainability is an extension of the mission of a company and the core values of a brand, it should be a seamless and shared responsibility between leadership and employees in all departments. I suspect the issue arises because in many cases sustainability is still misperceived as a separate initiative within a company rather than a fundamental part of doing business. Once that is accepted, such confusion quickly dissipates.

Seen togther these issues paint an encouraging portrait of a business sector that is increasingly engaged and committed to the issue of sustainability. No longer dismissed as mere good intentions, sustainability is now rightly recognized as a key business and profit driver, as well as a way to inspire greater employee, shareholder and customer loyalty.  (For a great example of the bottom line benefits of sustainability see Unilver’s 2nd Sustainable Living Progress Report here.) Even more encouraging is the fact that the pace of technology is propelling this discussion around the world ever faster, and sufficiently rewarded by customers, business can one day play a powerful role in the transformation of our planet and the lives of millions of people around the world.

Are there any other major issues around sustainability that are impacting your company? What major internal roadblocks do you see sustainability efforts facing?

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