The digital-consumerist culture instigated, on the one hand, a sophisticated and constant need to articulate and maintain our personal identity through symbols and aesthetics of the branded world, and on the other, confronted us with the environmental and social effects this constant need entails. During the last half of the decade, it became clear that the only way to reconcile our need to keep consuming is to give back every time we take. As a result, sustainability initiatives came to be less than optional for luxury brands. But while sustainability seems to be now ever-present in the marketplace, it appears as though some brands master it more authentically than others. Some initiatives feel phony and inadequate, just as though they were told to jump on the bandwagon, while others are fresh, innovative, and deeply genuine. So what are the differences, and how can these insights help brand development?

“[A sustainable model] meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” — United Nations

Every initiative, narrative, and spokesperson contributes to a whole idea, feeling, and aspiration that we call a brand. Synchrony between brand elements is essential for a unified meaning, and so is the common goal that the brand helps its consumers navigate towards. To translate this into the marketers’ language: A successful brand needs a strongly defined brand essence to build tactical value-creation around. When the brand essence is well formulated, it serves as a lighthouse to storytelling, content creation, product development, and even pricing strategy. And here comes in sustainability, as a single, but crucial expression of the brand’s DNA.

Sustainability is defined by the United Nations as an idea and model that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As easy as it sounds, in practice, implementation is intricate and puts even seasoned experts at unease. Brands, notably fashion brands, touch upon a long chain of operational stages from a single idea or trend, to design, production, sale, and even beyond if we consider after-consumption efforts. During all these stages, brands need to analyze their footprint to understand where and how they may impose harm on the environment, people, or other living creatures. Only then can a prioritization of initiatives and corrections begin to take place.

Amendments should not follow already existing practices of the marketplace but should be formed by the brand’s genuine philosophy. Hence, rather than compiling common tactics of competitors and emulating those, brands should return to their DNA. They must ask some questions and answer them truthfully:

  • What is the change that we are pledged to bring from the beginning of our existence?
  • What is the aspiration and hope we seek to evoke in our customers?
  • What is the kind of life we seek to provide to our employees as a reflection of our philosophy?

In their best possible universe, how do individuals and communities interact, and how are the ideal environments envisioned? Once those questions are answered, that’s when companies should begin to critically assess what they can and should do for the sake of sustainable development. Laying out a map of the inflicted damages has to be first systemized, and then needs to be juxtaposed against the brand’s set of ideals. This step is crucial to generate sustainability initiatives that are authentically fitting and well-guided.

Patagonia, for example, is an eminent example of sustainability done well. Founded by Yvon Chouinard, a rock-climber and environmentalist, the company is an attestation to a slow-living lifestyle highlighting synchrony between nature and humans. They don’t preach change but pioneer it starting at home: The company offers on-site child care, maternal and paternal care, free yoga classes, and generous PTO packages. They have launched a line of repair programs, and infamous anti-consumption campaigns to cut down on consumer culture, or better, to reform that. “Balance” is their brand essence, which they seek to implement both in workers’ rights and environmental footprint. Rather than conforming to industry standards, Patagonia examines its chain of operations and molds them to reflect their own philosophy. Read about Patagonia’s famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign in Ivan Gurkov’s article on human relations management.

Sustainability is, after all, living our best self today, while preparing for the best possible tomorrow. Meanwhile, the meaning of “best” is hardly inherent, as ideas are not inherently good or bad, but we, humans charge them with values, associations, and judgments. And exactly this is what provides brands the possibility to form and shape the future according to their own understandings and hopes. When done consequently and consistently at all touchpoints, brands remain authentic and more complex. A footprint due to operations will always exist, and the ultimate aim is not to erase it but to minimize and shape it. It would be hypocritical to state that sustainability is not a commercial opportunity in today’s marketplace, however, it is also an opportunity to lead everyday practice towards a world better lived.

Cover image source: Benjamin Davies