It’s no secret that the pressure for brands to go beyond profits, and embrace a more responsible approach to their operations, is rapidly increasing.
No longer is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) a buzzword for the overly conscious. Instead it’s evolved into a powerful tool that can shape public perception and strengthen brand equity. And no other space is gaining traction, with louder societal noise, than sustainability.
There seems to be one thing the audiences can agree on: It’s now time for brands to move past token gestures, and make a meaningful environmental impact. In the era of climate change and heightened awareness of environmental issues online, sustainability is not just a trend – it’s a necessity.
Consider Patagonia, a brand that’s leading the way in ethical fashion. They’ve pioneered initiatives like “worn wear”, encouraging customers to buy and sell used clothing, reducing the industry’s impact on the environment. By actively promoting repair and recycling, instead of pushing their own “new” clothing, Patagonia has earned a reputation as a brand that stands for longevity, responsible consumption, and ethical production.
What’s the result? A consumer base that’s more aligned with their values and shows loyalty with increased customer retention and positive brand sentiment.
In an increasingly ambitious marketplace, organisations need to gain a competitive advantage. Patagonia achieved just this. By prioritising sustainability as a central pillar of their business model, they not only positively influenced consumer behaviour, but investor sentiment and brand value too.
However, brands cannot make sustainable change that is genuinely impactful without purpose-driven leadership. Organisations that are found to be “green-washing” are often ridiculed harder than brands who didn’t try at all. Volkswagen learned this the hard way with their “Clean Diesel” campaign. They claimed their diesel cars were environmentally friendly and met strict emission standards. However, it was later discovered that they had installed software called “defeat devices” in their cars, manipulating the emissions tests.
By misleading consumers, and regulators, their reputation was severely damaged, resulting in numerous legal actions, fines, and worst of all, a loss of public trust in the brand’s environmental claims.
So how does a brand navigate a change in strategy at this scale? By having an effective leadership team. A team that will inspire your employees, align with key stakeholders, and drive real transformational change within the organisation. Without a safe pair of hands at the wheel (pardon the pun, sorry VW), you’ll be in the fast lane to public scrutiny.
A great example of a brand that did this right is Unilever. Their former CEO, Paul Polman, championed the concept of sustainable growth, integrating sustainability into their brand’s corporate plan, making it a business imperative, rather than a hastily-added afterthought. He created a “Sustainable Living Plan”, setting ambitious targets for reducing the brand’s environmental impact, while having the added benefit of enhancing social wellbeing.
By aligning Unilever’s business goals with a broader purpose, Polman gained support from investors, employees, and customers. His leadership not only strengthened the company’s reputation, but drove up significant value for shareholders. He proved there is a way to make an impact beyond commercial success. Not only was this effective for brand sentiment, but people began to trust Unilever, in matters beyond sustainability. They understood one key rule that many brands miss: Your audience are human beings – and they like to be included.
It’s important that you communicate openly with your audience about your environmental initiatives: both the wins, and the challenges. Whilst it may feel daunting to share a failure, or offer statistics before you know it’s been a success, it goes a long way with building authenticity – something audiences, especially Gen-Z, demand more of – and in building credibility.
Think of the Nike “Grind” programme. Nike were looking to find a solution to the environmental challenge of post-consumer waste generated by their shoes, and manufacturing scrap materials. They realised their production processes, and discarded shoes, were heavily contributing to landfill waste – and they owned this. Grind collects used athletic shoes from consumers, grinds them into granules, and transforms them into new products, like sports surfaces, playgrounds, and even new footwear.
But what makes this feat even more impressive is the brand’s commitment to transparency – and the way they fostered a sense of shared responsibility with customers. They shared their progress and impact with the general public, every step of the way. Nike still updates their website, to this day, with detailed information on the programme, including: the number of shoes collected, the amount of material recycled, and the products they’ve created with Nike Grind materials.
Transparency is the foundation of a successful CSR programme. It demonstrates a commitment to accountability. And, when stakeholders, employees, and customers are well-informed about a brand’s actions, they’re more likely to engage in a positive way, and support your broader mission without asking.
Remember, challenges are inevitable. You will make a mistake. It’s going to happen. Acknowledge your setbacks, and openly discuss any difficulties you stumble upon. Not only does this prove you’re a responsible organisation, holding yourself accountable (before others do it for you) but it also shows a willingness to learn and adapt. People appreciate honesty – if you take away one thing from this article, let it be that.
You might now be thinking “what about financial contributions?” Aren’t they better than nothing? Yes, sure, they’re great. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, true philanthropy goes beyond writing checks. When it comes to building a stronger relationship with your audience, never underestimate their intelligence. People can tell the difference between an obligatory, quick donation – whatever the amount – and a hands-on, philanthropic activity that empowers their community and creates sustainable, long-term changes for the better.
So the next time you’re considering a corporate social responsibility PR “stunt”, consider that you have the power to fundamentally shift the way businesses operate in the modern world, if you only approach it differently. By authentically embracing a sustainable frame-of-mind, you can strive to make a meaningful impact to become a brand that is trusted, inspirational, and positively contributing to the communities they serve.
At the very least, recognise your role in shaping a sustainable and equitable future, for all.