One of the biggest priorities in business is to solve, improve, and find sustainable solutions for brands and packaging, and be clear on where you stand on this with consumers.

One of the biggest risks is running before you can walk, putting marketing ‘the story’ before solving this challenge and becoming a greenwash bandwagoner.

So how do you find the balance and what lessons are in play from which to learn?

No surprise that starting with the audience is the foundation stone. Sustainability is on everyone’s lips. Which isn’t the same as everyone understanding what that means. We are in a space where phrases such as net-zero, carbon offsetting, carbon footprints, and compliance are bandied about by those who are sometimes just playing at the edges, and repeated as proof points, reasons to buy or trust, and as winning positions.

So audience knowledge gaps are often driven by brands and businesses who talk the talk without necessarily having the back-up, falling short on helping with education in favor of blah and buzz.

But it’s dangerous to assume that’s a safe game to play and follow. Or that audiences and customers will be satisfied with the talk. Or that they will buy brand bullshit if we follow the path along to its natural conclusion.

Brands are risking turning fans into cynics, or worse, feeding their inner social demons with name and shame currency to run with if they feel ‘their brands’ are failing the authenticity test. Hell has no fury as a fanbase scorned.

And that anti-brand perspective can come less from being slow but on the right path on the change process and more from blagging and bragging about approaches that aren’t all they purport to be.

As a marketing professional, talking on a marketing world website, to an audience of marketing professionals, it’s fair to say we all know where those issues can be borne from. Yep, our minds and souls.

Our desire to win listings, to show retail partners we are doing the right thing, and to drive our commercial success can win headspace over the strategic route. But, tortoise vs. hare. Icarus and the sun. Plenty of old-but-gold parables tell us what the way forward should and shouldn’t be.

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has, in the last few months, been keeping busy separating the marketing claims from reality. Whether this is Oatly taking a pop at rivals by claiming “the dairy and meat industries emit more CO2 than all the world’s planes, trains, cars, boats etc combined” (ASA rejected the claim as way too vague and unsubstantiated); or Innocent Drinks’ recycling-focused messaging, despite having single-use plastic products, being claimed as misleading for implying that “purchasing Innocent products was a choice that would have a positive environmental impact when that was not the cas” (ASA rejected campaign as too smoke and mirrors).

Starbucks famously axed their plastic straws in light of hot topic discussion but the replacement lids contained more plastics than the straws. An effort was being made but less speed and more focus on biodegradable alternatives would have had more of a long-term, genuine benefit than the short-term, potentially marketing-led ‘win’ of topicality.

Which means some lessons are, in theory, not complicated:

  • Don’t lead with marketing led-initiatives in sustainability;
  • Don’t just make up sweeping statements and attitudes;
  • Don’t try and trick your customer with rhetoric.

Could that part be easier?

But if that’s the watch-out, what should you be doing?

Packaging design, materials choices, accurate message craft and storytelling. PR – explaining what you are doing and why you are doing it is good, and in the best cases educational and beneficial for many audiences. The key differential is in the sequencing. Talk about what you have done, why that is important, and the rationale for the choices made. And mistakes learned from, things tried, and the realities of the journey that haven’t been easy.

Because that’s human, it shows hard graft in a hard space, and is helpful for the big picture to which all brands need to be contributing. It’s marketing-supported, not marketing-led. Values linked, not buzzword-driven. And part of your new long-term DNA, not as a sales-led and potentially short-term initiative.

It also requires more investment in the improvement strategy and process than in the shouting about it. As to an approach? There is a phrase that the US ad agency Goody Silverstein uses for its creative process – ”Creative Vandalism” – and that phrase is equally fit for the purpose of the sustainable packaging journey. Also known as ‘what if?’ or ‘Goldhawk’s spiky bomb approach’. Challenge everything and break it apart to see what can be different: materials, inks, size, shape, sources, formats, etc. Packaging as a canvas for better education. If ever rules are to be broken, it is now. The existing sea of on-shelf uniformity, a need for ‘less is more’, and the increasing consumer interest in what can be done differently means it is a great time for brands to genuinely lead, reinvent, and help everyone win.

Just look at the rise of compostable film wrappings and packaging, the importance of biodegradable start points for everything, or refill culture. And, although I believe marketing-first approaches are the wrong way to go, this doesn’t mean that commercial success has to be sacrificed for doing the right thing in the right order. Smart sustainable approaches can earn extra sales revenue, investment, on-shelf space, and long-term loyalty from new as well as existing customers. Sustainable decision-making is not just a business cost, but a growth strategy.

As long as the process is (no pun intended) more organic than a forced or brainstorm-created model, it comes back to attitude and risk. The risk of playing with an audience who might tag you as greenwashers or headline chasers? The risk of being too far behind the curve to catch up? Or the risk of being a next-generation brand where being an innovator might be a newer and unknown thing for your category?

In reality, only two of these risks come with a large dose of the negative. The third used to be called ‘good business thinking’.

Cover image source: Don Kaveen