Why sustainability issues are not just another trend for you to ride on

This post is sponsored by BBC.

In recent years, sustainability is a term that both brands and consumers are starting to hear more about. Just in the past year, we have seen an increasing number of brands pledging to adopt more sustainable practices.

Zara’s parent company Inditex, for one, has announced that by 2025, 100% of the cotton, linen and polyester used by all eight of its brands will be organic, sustainable or recycled. Additionally, 80% of the energy used in the group’s activities such as stores, logistic centres and offices will be aimed at becoming renewable by 2025.

Meanwhile, alcohol beverage brand Carlsberg has also committed to zero carbon emissions at its breweries, and a 30% reduction in its full value-chain carbon footprint by 2030. On the Asia Pacific front, local QSR brands such as Burger King and KFC have promised to remove the use of single-use plastic straws at their restaurants to urge consumers to be more sustainable when dining.

According to Isabelle Lim, director of corporate communications at L’Oréal Group, conversations around sustainability have really gained traction over the past few years in Asia. In a study shared by non-governmental sustainability groups which tracked the key issues in Asia and the stakeholders influencing sustainability, it noted that consumers started to be more mindful of sustainability in recent years, and by 2016, the conversation around sustainable development goals shot up to the top three issues conversed in Asia.

Lim, who spoke at the Green Marketing and Brand Purpose webinar, held by Marketing in partnership with the BBC Global News, also added that companies and corporations, along with the government, are now being held more accountable for sustainability in the eyes of consumers.

Sarah Keating, Asia commissioning editor for BBC.com features, also added that today it is also the role of the media to put environmental issues on the news agenda to raise awareness. She explained that even in her journey with the BBC, which started about 10 years ago, the topic was of less interest to the wider audience. But the tides have now definitely shifted.

“It is incredibly important that media organisations are talking about it, and so in February, we launched for us, it’s about creating a platform that is dedicated to environmental stories. BBC Future Planet - a home for solutions-focused environmental stories; and to send a message that we take these issues seriously, BBC Future Planet counts carbon in an effort to be the world’s first carbon conscious online publication, and the BBC News is taking this initiative further through our platforms, and sending the message that we take sustainability issues seriously,” she said.

“We have to tell our stories in a way that is going to engage our audience. That might mean that we adapt how we tell the stories depending on who we’re speaking to, but it’s always about making it relevant to your audience.”

Sustainability should be embedded in the culture

When it comes to a company’s sustainability efforts, Lim is of the opinion that it should be embedded right at the very start of the creation of the product, rather than a piecemeal or marketing gimmick at the very end. She added that while there are companies that park the sustainability element under marketing and CSR spend, there are many others such as L’Oréal who truly take a more definitive stance.

L’Oréal has been actively putting significant long-standing efforts to reduce and address environmental impact with its “Sharing Beauty With All” sustainability development program. In May 2020, they launched a €150 million social and environmental solidarity program “L’Oréal for the Future” with €100 million dedicated to environment impact investing, including the regeneration of marine and forest ecosystems, and solutions for the circular economy in recycling and plastic waste management to promote sustainable consumerism. They are also a pioneering member of the Paper Bottle Company Pabaoco to create bio-sourced recyclable packaging, which is expected to be in market by 2021 under the La Roche-Posay and Kiehl’s brands.

“For L’Oréal, every product has to have sustainability ingrained prior to the creation. We believe that sustainability should be a core part of your product, so when consumers try to dig further, they can see there is true authenticity behind what you’re doing,” she said. This also helps when the company communicates its green strategy to consumers in the future.

Lim added the sustainability agenda should be a company-wide initiative where senior management should also be the ones driving the change.

L’Oréal takes this involvement one step further and has its CEO and senior managers’ bonuses dependent on achieving sustainability objectives.

According to Lim, this serves as proof the company applies the same requirement to its environmental performance as much as it does to its product performance.

Véronique Augier Nel, director of communications and CSR for APAC at Accor hotels, seconded that view, adding that a company’s green strategy needs to be embraced by everyone at every level of the company. Accor, thus, added CSR key performance indicators into the bonus scheme of every single person at every level of the organisation, starting with its global chairman and CEO, all the way down to its hotel teams.

With measures such as these, companies are then forced to practise sustainability and stick to their green strategies, she explained.

She also pointed out that at the end of the day it is important for companies to be authentic in their green strategies. When asked what companies should do to prove authenticity, Nel said it comes down to common sense and empathy.

“Keep your strategy tight, relevant, simple, and localised for consumers,” she said, adding that it is really important to stay aligned with the company identity, and keep its strategy around its core values.

The last thing companies should do is to try to be something they are not, or join in a movement just because it is trending.

Using data to fuel sustainability efforts

Rainbow Cheung, head of sustainability for APAC at Salesforce, agreed that today, companies who want to adopt sustainability practices need to first understand where the company stands in terms of its carbon emissions, and its purpose around sustainability. But she also pointed out there is still a disconnect between what a consumer might care about, and what a company needs to do to make the biggest impact.

“When you ask the consumer, what do you think sustainability is all about, the answer might be around plastics in the ocean or more emotional elements. But when you look at it through a data lens, the biggest contributor is actually energy use or carbon emissions,” she said.

“And for businesses it could be around building sustainable supply chains. These are not areas that normal consumers would generally think about.

Being one of the biggest data companies in the world, it hence, comes as no surprise that Salesforce relies on data to decide what is business-critical in becoming a sustainable company. Currently, it is also using this data to help its suppliers join its fight in reducing overall carbon emissions.

Cheung added that while incorporating sustainability into companies’ strategies is important, measuring outcomes is also equally vital. But the task is not an easy one for many.

Salesforce has implemented science-based target goals to keep the company in check, and it also makes it easier for the top management to measure where the company is at with its sustainability efforts. By using data, the company makes more well-informed decisions and crafts out how it should be carrying out its green efforts.

“Data is everything. At Salesforce, we believe sustainability is a part of our core strategy. So having data from all different aspects that fits into our main business decisions is really key,” she said.