Make the World Greta Again: How Sustainable Is Your Brand & Retail Really?

Please excuse the pun, I just had to make it to grab your attention. I want you, and I want your engagement – to read and perhaps share this article, but much more importantly, to make sustainability a wholehearted top priority in 2020.

Before sharing inspiration on what you can do, I have a confession to make: In my 40+ years in business, my carbon footprint has been far above average. On top of that, I make a living by helping businesses go global, which in turn drives their carbon footprint too. Greta, you certainly got me.

If you travel in global branding, you get used to the beautiful perspective of flying, without questioning the implication (Photo: Brand Pilots)

For a long time, I made excuses and told myself that there is no alternative unless we want to return to the stone age. Not everyone can charter a boat to join a conference in New York. Well, I was wrong and learned that there are in fact brands and retailers out there who show that you can give back to the environment and to society more than you take. And it seems to work strategically, socially and financially. After all, many of those companies began engaging on that path decades before Greta Thunberg was born.

Why We Should Finally Care

Unless you follow a contrary political agenda or make a living in fossil fuel products, you are likely to know that we face a climate emergency and agree that it is urgent that we take our responsibility to environment and society seriously now.

But unfortunately, as human beings we sometimes wait for a catastrophe to happen to remind ourselves of that responsibility.

Rana Plaza, a garment factory in Dhaka collapsed in 2013 with a death toll of 1134 workers. Many Western retailers sourced from the factory and didn’t bother the poor safety. (Photo: Von Rijans on Flickr)

And for those who prefer a positive nudge, how about this one: “93% of global consumers expect more of the brands they use to support local social and environmental issues”. And this isn’t from a study commissioned by the Clean Cloth Campaign, but research published by the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

So it isn’t a surprise that most major lifestyle brands in fashion, sporting goods or footwear, work on programmes of compliance, inclusion, fairtrade, carb-free and many other social topics. That’s a good start. But measured against the footprint these companies leave, and against what’s needed to turn things around, it’s far from good enough.

Good brands and retailers enforce safety and labour laws with suppliers or engage in clean water campaigns, but too many leave suppliers behind if these efforts make products more expensive. And yes, it’s great that brands develop 100% recyclable products, but as long as the majority of new season products is based on wasting valuable resources, we still need to find ways to improve.

By growing consumption of recycled plastic, the industry can help to clean up the oceans (Photo: John Cameron)

And whether all of the recent engagement is an honest effort or merely lip service for marketing purposes remains to be seen for some. At the end of the day, any contribution to Greta’s cause is better than none at all. The brand industry at large, however, can and needs to do far more.

Can a Truly Sustainable Business Grow?

There is not one but a thousand definitions of sustainability. It begins with “the idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment”, according to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Other definitions go further, with some even trying to revamp the co-existence of humankind and nature entirely. I believe in improving the status quo and take my benchmarks from the concept of B. Corporations.

So-called Benefit Corporations are a particular type of company that, while aiming for profit, don’t drive for shareholder value maximisation, but for a positive social impact. Unlike a NGO, they mostly have a clear commitment to growth and profits (to enlarge their engagement in society). To understand the concept of B. Corporation better, let us look at an example from our industry: Patagonia.

Benchmarking Engagement for Society

Patagonia was founded almost 50 years ago as a traditional corporation. Founder Yvon Chouinard began to care about the environment early on and turned Patagonia into a certified B.Corporation in 2011.

In its early years Patagonia was just like other outdoor brands, with customers who spend a majority of their leisure time in nature. It pays into brand value and sales if your marketing drives home how you give back to nature. Timberland, Jack Wolfskin and The North Face, all engaged in society early on. But Patagonia has gone much further:

Patagonia and their outstanding best practices will get a separate article in January. For those that can’t wait to understand where Patagonia makes the difference, I recommend to study Patagonia’s unusual annual report and visit one of their latest stores like the new flagship in Berlin.

And there a more good examples growing up, like Ecoalf from Spain.

Recycled fashion made by Ecolf, “Because there is no planet b” (Photo: Ecoalf)

How about ‘Retail Mondays for Future’ in 2020?

Let’s be honest, not many of us have shareholders who put social good and the environment above their financial interest in the brand. Not many of us work in a start-up that can afford to create their products from 100% recycled material. Not many of us have the budget to engage in our stores’ local communities. But we can nevertheless all find ways to engage with the environment and society far more than we have over the last 20 years.

Adidas promises to only use recycled plastic by 2024 – a good way to contribute (Photo: Adidas)

In most cases, what we do today is still next to nothing compared to the footprint we leave or what is needed to turn things around. Like the electric car that leaves a significant carbon footprint when manufactured and consumes fossil-based electricity, the particular ways in which we care do not always leave a positive footprint yet.

You may not have the freedom to dedicate 1% of revenue to social engagement like Patagonia’s management. But if your business is stable and growing (which is true for more than 50% of global brands), you do have the freedom to make your social engagement your first priority and you can dedicate 10% of the time to improving your social and environmental footprint.

How about transforming ‘Retail Mondays’, where you reflect on last week’s sales and actions for this week, into ‘Retail Mondays for Future’ where you engage in both, better sales and a better society. You may not be Greta, but you almost certainly have more experience and more resources at your disposal, and therefore you also have a greater responsibility.

It is not a new iPhone, it is Patagonia’s opening of a thriftshop pop-up – I hope we see more of these openings in future (Photo: Patagonia)

So, when it’s New Year’s resolutions time, take a step back from your old ways of doing things to step up for the environment and society. Greta is an influencer for a better world; quote her for a better kind of marketing and don’t wait for another Rana Plaza to happen.

Postscript: Where I grew up in the sixties, there was likely not a single family without some serious generational conflict and arguments about how much parents and grandparents knew about Nazi concentration camps and what they did against the Holocaust. If you want to avoid similar arguments about the climate emergency with the next generation, act now!


About the author

Guido gave up his car three years ago and cycles or takes trains most of the time these days. But he also admits that going green isn’t easy if you have to travel long distance on a regular basis, or have shopping to feed a family of four to manage. He too can do more and wants to do more. Feel free to contact Guido or connect with him on LinkedIn.

3 thoughts on “Make the World Greta Again: How Sustainable Is Your Brand & Retail Really?

  1. Agustin says:

    Very interesting, fully agree.
    Every Retail Brand must have a commitment on a Sustainability Annual target. And build a calendar & strategy for a long term goal.

  2. Henning Füllers says:

    Hi Guido,
    You got me on this – I am constantly thinking how capitalism will evolve. Our economy and hence our wealth are build to grow year on year and frankly I question where shall this bring us? And it starts with me and every one of us … but not delivering growth or more efficiency means we will loose shareholder value, raise unemployment, ….
    Certainly a challenge for mankind and we cannot continue the way we have.
    Best, Henning

  3. Guido Schild says:

    Thanks Henning.

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