How To Stand Out As A Sustainable Brand
Dana Krastev previously led strategy and communications teams at a Fortune 50 financial services company. She’s now pursuing her passion for sustainability and design, creating a “salon” for sustainability in her hometown of San Francisco. Currently blogging at blankslate.blog.

 

Guys, is 2020 canceled yet? A global pandemic is raging, we still have a climate crisis, and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. But there might just be a silver lining: people are waking up and starting to realize that the old ways of consuming and engaging with the world are no longer going to cut it.

Cue the growing interest in sustainability.

Let’s look at fashion as one example. Lyst, who tracked 100 million searches on its platform in 2019, saw a 75% increase year on year in searches for sustainable fashion, and interest has continued to grow in 2020. Brands and retailers are taking notice, and all of a sudden everywhere you look are claims of clean/conscious/sustainable.

Luxury e-tailers Net-a-PorterFarfetchThe Iconic, and Nordstrom all launched sustainable edits in 2019, fast fashion brands like H&M and Asos are continuing to spotlight their conscious collections, and DTC brands such as Allbirds are seeking to differentiate on their sustainability credentials. 

As an emerging brand, how do you cut through the noise (and let’s be real, the greenwashing) and effectively communicate your sustainability commitment?

I’d argue it starts with creating a sustainability policy, setting measurable goals against it, and continually engaging your community on the progress you’re making. 


CREATE A SUSTAINABILITY POLICY & SET MEASURABLE GOALS

A robust sustainability policy can serve as an anchor for your product development, your operations, and even your culture, enshrining where you want to go as a company and how you’ll get there.

Maggie Marilyn, a New Zealand-based contemporary label that counts Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama as fans, nails this balance of practical and aspirational in their sustainability strategy

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They split their objectives into 3 categories (People, Planet, and Prosperity), and tie them to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted by 193 countries in a historic UN Summit. 

For each of their 14 objectives, they outline “Why” they chose it, “Challenges” to implementation, their specific “2020 Target”, and “Progress Status” (see snapshot above). Just a few weeks ago, they released a first-quarter update on their progress for the year, with a candid letter from their founder Maggie Hewitt on successes and challenges.


You can also check out the Fashion Transparency Index for inspiration. It ranks 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers on how much they disclose about their social and environmental policies, practices, and impacts. It’s become an industry benchmark.

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Although the overall framework is complex, this year’s Spotlight Issues — the 4 C’s — offer a great starting point for brands thinking about their impact:

  • Conditions: What are you doing to improve conditions for workers in your company and supply chain?

  • Consumption: What are you doing to address overproduction, minimize waste, and move towards circularity?

  • Composition: What are you doing to increase the use of sustainable materials and reduce the use of virgin plastics and hazardous chemicals?

  • Climate: What are you doing to combat climate change and move towards sustainable management of natural resources?

With these examples in mind, what are 3 goals you can choose that are tied to your company vision and achievable based on your current business model? Aim high, but be realistic, and build from there. Reach out to your community for feedback, and bring them along with you on your journey. 


PROMOTE SUSTAINABILITY IN ALL CHANNELS INCLUDING PRODUCT PAGES.

 

Today’s consumers, led by millennials and Gen Z, are looking for authenticity. They respond well when you weave sustainability/environmental and social awareness into your DNA as a brand rather than giving it passing reference. 

A recent Gartner report showed that brands promote sustainability unevenly across channels, with many sharing on Instagram, but fewer on their websites and very little on product pages or email. But there is a halo effect for those brands that make it a regular element of their messaging; they receive more engagement than those that promote it infrequently (see more here). 

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One brand that integrates sustainability across channels and touchpoints is Allbirds.

Take a look at the product page for their wool runners; they break down each component of the shoe and explain its environmental bona fides, and also share the total carbon footprint. This kind of detailed disclosure builds credibility with customers (though they could stand to be more transparent about their labor standards and where they manufacture). 

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On the other hand, Outdoor Voices, despite declaring their sustainability intentions, make no mention of it in their product pages. All they disclose is fabric mix, and seem to be more concerned with trademarking the fabric (i.e., TechSweat™) than explaining its impact on the planet. This is a miss, and undermines their “promise of transparency.”

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The bottom line: if you incorporate sustainability into your messaging, do it consistently and at every key customer touchpoint.

Another potential benefit of this approach? An SEO bump, so you can get credit for your sustainability efforts when consumers search on Google. See this Lyst report for some trending keywords in the conscious fashion space (and if possible, engage an SEO consultant to get those rankings up!)

Good luck out there founders. We have a chance to raise consumers’ consciousness and blow up business as usual: Let’s do it.

September 30, 2020 — Minette Yu