Sustainability is ‘in’ right now. Whether it’s KFC and their vegan chicken burger, Burger King’s controversial advert promoting their move away from the use of artificial preservatives, or McDonald’s phasing out plastic straws, it’s all about showcasing your brand purpose. But companies need to go beyond trying to connect with consumers on an emotional level by aligning themselves with a particular ‘cause’. The responsibility to sustainability needs to be part of your core business model and values, rather than being an add-on initiative or part of your marketing strategy — or at least this was the view of David Erixon, CMO of Bó, and Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra, at The Drum’s most recent breakfast event. The event, moderated by Drum editor Gordon Young, coincided with the issues raised in their latest print edition, which was focused on social purpose and guest edited by Brian Whipple, CEO of Accenture Interactive.
The panelists, including Reuben Turner, Creative Director of GOOD, and Owen Lee, CCO of FCB Inferno, debated whether the responsibility toward sustainability lies with brands or consumers. Lee argued that if consumers simply stop buying unsustainable products or stop using unsustainable services, companies will quickly have to pivot their offering to adapt to consumer demand. However, Townsend stated that though companies may be adopting this stance as a form of justification for their practices, it still does not explain their choice to spend millions, if not billions, in advertising budget towards marketing these unsustainable products.
Brands may claim to be changing their practices, such as in the case of KLM’s ‘Fly Responsibly’ campaign, but as one audience member posed, it’s all well and good for these companies to publicly outline their commitment to sustainability and claim they will have reduced their carbon footprint by a certain percentage in 10–15 years’ time, but what action are they taking today?
I’m inclined to agree with Townsend in that it should fall to brands to adapt and evolve their products and services. She used the example of Danone. Traditionally known for its dairy-based products and bottled water, the company has spent the last few years investing in plant-based products and creating sustainable alternatives within its water business. I predict, or rather hope, we will see this same strategy being rolled out across other companies. What is stopping Uber and Deliveroo only offering electric vehicles for its services? Or Uber going a step further and offering only car-shares? Nothing. What is stopping coffee shops eradicating the use of all paper cups and simply charging customers for a reusable cup when they want to order a beverage? When pubs and bars stopped offering plastic straws, people didn’t stop ordering drinks. Yes, there are exceptions, for instance disabled people, but in place of plastic straws we now have silicone or metal reusable ones. The marketplace adapted; perhaps brands need to do the same.