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Progressive Brands Should Turn Their Backs on Sustainability

Every progressive consumer-facing brand should now turn their back on sustainability.

Sounds harsh? Well, very possibly. But after researching more than 100 companies and their brands worldwide, and speaking to CEOs and CMOs on issues around sustainability, sustainable development and brand relevance, I genuinely believe brands have taken a wrong turn: that rather than remaining slavishly devoted to reporting sustainability, brands have a far more important – a far more exciting – role to play in helping us all move towards becoming more sustainable in our lifestyles. And I should add, that at the same time as potentially bringing about mass-scale consumer behaviour change, this opportunity for brands could also net considerable, and durable benefits for their corporate guardians.

After such a build-up, the argument is pretty simple. Brands should ignore sustainability issues, as these are just symptoms of a deeper underlying cause. That underlying cause is a collapse in our collective social capital.

Social capital broadly refers to the stocks of dialogue, shared thinking and trust that swirls around us, whether it’s in our families, at work, in the community, or across the country. I talk a bit more about social capital here, and we go to great lengths to explain it in our new book Brand Valued, but the point to make is that social capital and sustainability are joined at the hip. Because when social capital is low, then it becomes all too easy to marginalise voices and externalise costs. Conversely, when social capital is high, then these voices are heard, and these costs are recognised. In other words, changes to our levels of social capital either create – or eliminate – unsustainable practices. So rather than trying to fix the issue once the issue is in play, focusing on social capital – the operating system of our social system – allows us to stop the issue even appearing.

Seeing the challenges we face from a social capital perspective, rather than a strict sustainability perspective is really a very good thing for brands, because brands are naturally in the business of building social capital. If social capital represents the ‘conductivity’ of society, then the greater the levels of social capital, the more effective brands can be in engaging their constituents.

But here’s the issue. It’s not just low social capital that creates problems in the system; it’s also lopsided or imbalanced social capital. Social capital comes in several flavours, and if we look back over the history of brands we can see they’ve excelled at creating one form: bonding capital. Bonding capital is literally your comfort zone: it’s typified by people like you, doing the things you like to do, when you want to do it. Bonding capital is exclusive, private and can end up being intoxicating. Sound familiar? It should do – it’s the basis of brand loyalty. Too much bonding capital – the ‘engine bolts’ in society – pushes out linking and bridging capital – the ‘engine oil’ in society. And it doesn’t take much to imagine what happens to the moving parts in society when there’s no oil in the system. It seizes. We seize.

The good news is that from all the research we’ve carried out it seems we are slowly freeing ourselves from this collective seizure. If the tail end of the twentieth century ran with a strap line of “I Want,” this century’s first draft is reading “I Belong.” Social capital is on the rise.

From a brand perspective, this is big news. Because brands represent the most efficient, ingenious and indefatigable engines of social capital we have at our disposal. It’s as if they were made for the job – which of course they were, albeit in a different era, with different demands. Brands were fast – opportunistic even – in responding to the changes at the end of World War II, but as the landscape alters again on such a scale, can they be as agile? Some, maybe. But not all.

In creating richer and more balanced social capital, brands have the opportunity to both nudge their corporate guardians closer to a long-term and durable competitive advantage, and us all towards more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyles. Robert Putnam and others talk about the benefits to societies rich in social capital, and we extend that thesis to business advantage: faster and more frequent dialogue, greater innovation, access to tacit knowledge, trust, loyalty, agility – the list goes on.

When it comes to nudging us towards more sustainable lifestyles, the role brands play in enriching social capital is crucial. Brands – as emotion-savvy, story-telling mavens – have the power to convene communities. Within communities – including brand communities – people behave differently. Just like conventional economics considers us rational, individual utility-maximising creatures, so conventional consumer psychology considers us lone, information-processing, utility-hunters. Which of course we’re not: David Brooks makes this case elegantly in The Social Animal. When operating in communities – in other words environments where we are visible, where social identity is important, and reciprocity is expected amongst members, there’s a whole slew of new attitudes, intentions and behaviours that emerge. Whether it’s because it’s what we genuinely think is right (an intrapsychical motivation) or whether it’s because we want to be seen to be thinking it’s right (impressions management) the immutable truth is that being within a community makes us all behave more prosocially. Which has to be good news, as prosocial behaviour is a crucial determinant of sustainable behaviour.

More than that, in dense and rich communities, where a behaviour is deemed by that community to be prosocial (or sustainable) in nature, there’s an emerging argument that says rebadging that behaviour as such will re-form positive attitudes towards that and other similarly badged behaviours in the future. In other words, when we get into a community environment, the opportunities to engage consumers in prosocial behaviour – and prosocial attitudes – increase dramatically, with consumers getting more out of the experience as a result. In short, communities around brands create an environment where it’s not a case of a niche group of consumers doing what they think they should do, but rather all consumers doing what they know they want to do.

So back to the opening challenge of this article: that brands should walk away from sustainability. I stand by it, because I think there’s so much more a progressive brand can do in this climate; that the opportunity to do more is too great to pass up. And to reiterate, this is an opportunity to not only make a valued contribution to our collective need to transition to more sustainable lifestyles when we need it most, but to also secure a long-lasting competitive advantage for the firm.

Guy Champniss is co-author of ‘Brand Valued: How socially valued brands hold the key to a sustainable future and business success.’ (Wiley & Sons, June 2011). Guy is an independent strategy and brand consultant, and Managing Director of Meltwater Consulting, a London-based boutique brand strategy agency, focusing on sustainability and prosocial consumer behaviour. Please send comments to guy@meltwater-consulting.com.

Guy Champniss
Guy Champniss is co-author of ‘Brand Valued: How socially valued brands hold the key to a sustainable future and business success.’ (Wiley & Sons, June 2011). Guy is an independent strategy and brand consultant, and Managing Director of Meltwater Consulting, a London-based boutique brand strategy agency, focusing on sustainability and prosocial consumer behaviour. Please send comments to guy@meltwater-consulting.com.
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26 thoughts on “Progressive Brands Should Turn Their Backs on Sustainability

  1. This doesn’t make sense to me. Why differentiate between sustainability and social capital? They are undoubted linked, and can be considered drivers of each other. It seems to me that this is over complicating an already complex concept that companies are just starting to address in a somewhat effective manner. As a management consultant focused on driving business value through sustainability, I disagree with this article, as it has the potential to make my job harder, more complex, and detract from the fact that at the end of the day, if a Brand focuses on sustainability it will certainly improve social capital.

  2. I’m with you Adam. This is not a matter of either/or, but both/and. I had the same reaction that you had to this piece. It overcomplicates the issue. Walk away from sustainability because there is more you can do? I contend that everything Guy espouses is already embodied in a commitment to sustainability.

  3. Now you are talking my language. Social connectedness is high on our blog and FB page: Women Of Green. We talk and connect on this all the time. That goes double for our Green Marketing Blog. Remember, women buy 85% of the consumer products in the US AND we’re the ones that are socializing most in social media. Hmmm, there’s a hint. Check out our newest post on Women Of Green “Is compassionate a key to a truly greener world: An intelligent conversation with Dr. Renee Lertzman”. I appreciate your article Guy. Mad Ave has so missed the boat on sustainability. Let’s keep the conversation going.
    — Carolyn Parrs

  4. Provocative article, to be sure, but to instruct brands, especially consumer-facing brands, to focus solely on social capital and ignoring the ‘other’ capitals that make up “complete” or “broad” sustainability – natural, manufactured, human and financial – will lead to precisely the unbalanced world that Guy is warning about.

    Interestingly, sustainability is really a rebranding of many disciplines in which organizations must perform well in order to prosper. This is the challenge that faces companies that are investing in sustainability already: there is so much to consider and address in the sustainable journey that the task seems too big or complex to undertake. Breaking this down into the Five Capitals allows for looking at sustainability as a whole of parts – many of which have been operationalized within the larger organizations for years – and consider initiatives within each capital to create a balanced portfolio for creating lasting, positive change.

    I am comfortable with the notion that there are professionals like Guy that advocate a ‘deep dive’ into a particular capital, but to label any one of them as THE answer is, quite simply, too….simplistic.

  5. The article makes a valid point. There’s so much more to a sustainable business than reducing the carbon footprint of your operations. The big question is what does the product do for the consumer? Is that sustainable?

  6. Hi,

    Thanks for the comments. If I may I’d like to quickly offer some answer to them.

    To Adam and Pam, I certainly do not aim to make anyone’s job in this area more complicated or challenging. What I am/was aiming to do was draw a distinction between what a company does as a legal, physical entity, and what a brand does – or could do. I do not challenge for one second that the company should strive to improve on its sustainability mission, which includes hard environmental and social objectives. However, is the best use of the brand to faithfully report these endeavours? I argue not, for the fact that – as you say – sustainability is complex already, and I think there’s a good argument that says the more detail that is given to consumers, the more complex it is to find the right choice, and the less likely someone is to engage in that process. This – away from sustainability – has been shown in other research – choice = lack of decision.
    What brands have always been good at (but not with good intentions) is evoking emotional responses, and these emotional responses rely on pre-decisional distortions – which means you act with heart rather than head. Isn’t it the role of brands to get us to act (for good) with our head? Not only is the decision easier, but the process has been proven to be more positive, with higher advocacy and word of mouth etc as a result. However, a key to this happening is high trust in the brand – and the reason I bang on about social capital, is that from an academic standpoint, social capital is high when dialogue, thought and trust are high. So if a brand can rack up trust in this context, so it can more effectively engage us beyond data, with stories and narratives that help us make sense.

  7. Tyler,

    Thanks for your comment. An example would be Toyota with their Ideas for Good campaign. Rather than using the brand to ‘report’ sustainability, they used the brand to convene interest in using Toyota’s technology to find solutions to the problems that those who engaged with the initiative thought worthwhile. The campaign created social capital around sustainability issues, because it initiated a dialogue, it presented a platform for others to then reflect and contribute, and then sought to garner more trust by acting on those ideas to the best of its abilities.


  8. Greg,

    Thanks also for taking the time to post. I very much buy the 5 capitals model used by various people, and use it as part of a process in the day job. However, when it comes to consumer facing brands, I believe (even if I cannot explain it well…!) that social capital trumps all. Why? Because social capital levels determine perception, and specifically the accuracy of perception. As social capital describes dialogue, thought and trust, then if a brand creates a lot of social capital, then the process should result in a reputation that is accurate – which is what you want if the business (not the brand) is working hard at sustainability at other levels.
    But social capital also allows us to understand -and show trust towards those who we consider have helped us understand. With consumer brands, the biggest challenge brands face in the context of sustainability, is getting people to care and act. Actually, care may not be important -just act. I believe the most effective way to get that to happen is to engage consumers on the salient issues when it comes to the various forms of capital: so find a way to increase dialogue, thinking and trust around natural capital etc. And just to be clear, social capital in the brand context is not the same as social capital in a wider context: Nike can work hard to build social capital at a brand level that helps its consumers make sense of why social capital in terms of community development (for example) is important for a rich and prosperous society.
    Overall, I believe the more brands offer forensic analyses of supply chains as a form of communication, the less likely consumers will be to engage in the mainstream, since the data are complex, and the decisions fraught with trade-offs. Yes, it involves a huge amount of responsibility from the brand, but I think the brand needs to focus on other methods to communicate and engage; and the social capital argument is one that tries to lay out a process, whereby the steps to build trust and evoke an emotional, socially-inflienced response are mindful of a wider goal for business and its brands.

    Ultimately, my argument rests on the belief that brands need to focus more on building a sustainable demand chain, rather than reporting a sustainable supply chain.

  9. Alan,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree. And to answer the question as to what the product does for the consumer depends very much on the experience the consumer has with the product: what do they want functionally, emotionally, symbolically etc. One of the richest ways consumers make sense of brands is looking at the cues and references around them – what does it stand for, would someone like me buy this etc. In striving to build social capital around the sustainability issues, what the brand can do is shape those cues and references; help consumers make sense of them. A product can suddenly represent far more symbolic and emotional value is the social capital around it – so dialogue, thought and trust – is rich and vibrant. Tyler in an earlier post asked for an example, and another I’d throw in here would be Unilever’s Dove brand and its real beauty campaign. For sure it’s been overused as a case study for everything, but in this instance I believe the brand did a good job at contributing towards a more sustainable future, by opening up, convening and enabling rich dialogue and opinion forming around what beauty should mean in a society. This wasn’t the brand being prescriptive, but rather it let those interacting with the campaign choose its direction. This, as you say, is a case of where the brand looked to make the product more meaningful to the consumer. Guy

  10. Ah! Thank you for the additional feedback; I understand the crux of your argument now. I agree wholeheartedly that the goal of sustainability (or any other construct for better business governance and management) is not to provide information externally, but to ensure that an organization is operating as effectively as it possibly can do so. Brand considerations and ‘connection’ with the customer, as you have outlined, are critical in sustaining a brand – reporting on ‘how sustainable’ it may be is not.

    Here’s to doing away with sustainability, GHG, environmental, CSR, etc. reports altogether and focus on what it means to be a truly valued brand and sustainable organization. Cheers!

  11. Great article Guy, definitely agree that without strong social capital, the operating system of our society, then any consequent or parallel investment in sustainability in other directions will fall on stoney ground.

    For those who are interested in social capital why not check out our website (www.social-capital.net) for information on the 3rd Social Capital World Forum in Austria this September.

  12. Hi Tim,

    In answer to your question, I think it depends on the focus. If a brand predicates its efforts on data and transparency, I am not sure it does build social capital. The reason I think that, is that sustainability is complex and contradictory on many issues: food miles versus international development, sustainable fishing versus sustainable preparation etc. So the more data there are, possibly the less people will discuss and modify their opinions, because the process becomes too difficult. More dramatically, if the brand’s efforts to portray sustainability are too bewildering or complex, I think there’s a danger that people walk away from that debate altogether. I think we’re not far from that point now with the wealth/confusion in certification. That’s to say I don’t think certification is now helping build social capital around the sustainability issues for various categories, but instead is destroying it. IMHO.

  13. Hi Colin,

    Thanks for the note – and good to hear from another blatant social capitalist! I very much agree with your operating system reference – I use the same one in the book (Brand Valued). I think it works well when describing how small tweaks to the code can make the whole system run differently.

    Your conference sounds interesting. I’ll connect with you via your site to see if there’s any overlap between our work we could develop. Guy

  14. Understanding the author has a book to sell, the representation of corporate sustainability in this article is just plain wrong. If in fact, corporations viewed their only responsibility as slavishly reporting sustainability, than the author would have a point, but this is not the case. Sustainability has matured and evolved over the years and leading global corporations understand the value and importance of sustainable business practices. It is not about simply reporting past performance. Sustainability is also not an exercise to achieve an equal balance of social, economic, and environmental interests. Sustainability, particularly in the corporate environment, means always considering those factors when making a business decision and giving each the appropriate weight for that particular decision. Sustainability is a proactive mindset, that if done correctly will result in a corporation building social capital.

  15. Hello Shannon,

    As said earlier, I do not question your view of corporate sustainability. But my article was not about corporate sustainability; it was about the role of brands – as cues for consumers and other stakeholders – in sustainability. Everything you say is valid from a supply-side perspective. But I had been trying to discuss the challenges from a demand-side perspective.

    You say that “leading corporations understand the value and importance of sustainable business practices”: what is that value exactly? In most cases it is economic, and that in turn involves persuading customers and consumers to value those practices, and the products and services they produce. My argument had been around the best way to get customers – and consumers – recognise the value in the processes that create more sustainable outputs, for the simple reason that most consumers will not care sufficiently about the intentions, motivations or operations of businesses.

    As with others, I humbly think you are conflating business with brand. The two things are very different, and more importantly the two things have very different, diverging, roles in sustainability. Yes, they are interdependent, and arguably complementary, but they are not the same. Finally, with regards to the demand-side challenge ahead – and the need for brands to work hard – and efficiently – here, there is no need to take my word for it: listen to the CEOs of Unilever, Coca-Cola, P&G, Shell and Toyota over the last few months, or look at the recent outputs of the WBCSD or WEF.

    Brands need to be a powerful weapon for business not signalling what they have done, but rather what customers and consumers can do.

  16. “Because brands represent the most efficient, ingenious and indefatigable engines of social capital we have at our disposal. It’s as if they were made for the job – which of course they were, albeit in a different era, with different demands.”

    Really? Brands can neither accrue nor spend social capital. Why? Necause they have no real existence, they are just words/logos on a page. “Juicy,” is just a word as is “Coke,” “Burger King,” and all the rest. Anyone who wants to tell you that they have more meaning than that is a fool. Brands are fleeting, wisps of culture, they appear and disappear in a moment. Only people and communities can acrue or spend social capital. The best thing that “brands” can do is to stay the heck out of socal policy altogether.

    I buy very few heavily marketed brands and I could care less about what my friends think about the choices I make and the brands I buy. I buy local, buy used, buy from small businesses, make it/grow it myself. If a brand that I buy has an external tag on it, like a pair of jeans, the first thing I do when I get it home is to tear the darn thing off. If the branding is built into the item, like logos woven in the fabric of a purse, it will never make it into my shopping cart. The only good brands are ones that exist in the background of my life, brands are not my life, they do not speak to me or for me. Now my kids do the same and they laugh at the other kids in school who are obsessed over some stupid name plate and who spend a ridiculous amount of money just to wear that word.

    Alot of social capital is spent so that the consumer will look away when that same comapny does something that is socially unacceptable. “Don’t hate WM for pushing Waste- to-Energy plants, they build wetlands and preserve forests.” Yeah, sure, you can go for that–if you are a sucka that is.

    “Brands need to be a powerful weapon for business not signalling what they have done, but rather what customers and consumers can do. If someone needs American Express to tell you how to make a difference in your world, or to be empowered to do so, I really feel sorry for them.

    What brands need to do is to taste good, or clean well, or wear well or work the way they are supposed to do.

    If you eally care about the power of brands, you could help them to improve their quality. Here’s a novel suggestion that is a blast from the past of those older brands that you wrote so nostalgically about. Make products that are repairable/upgradable. How’s that for a novel concept. Do that and YOU will earn some social capital.

  17. “A product can suddenly represent far more symbolic and emotional value is the social capital around it – so dialogue, thought and trust – is rich and vibrant.”

    Can I just call that plain old drivel? The second a consumer attaches emotion to a branded product they become a pushover, a patsy, a loser.

  18. I think most commenters are missing the point of the article. The author is NOT discussing an ideal world where everyone acts responsibly and sustainability is our universal ethos. He is speaking instead of the actual planet we inhabit, where everyone’s guard is not always up to the subtle (and not so subtle) influences of billions of corporate dollars spent to permeate our daily lives.

    The author is not attacking sustainability, nor is he wistfully praising corporations or touting specific brands. The simple point of the long article is that brands influence buying habits of most consumers, especially here in the U.S. This is fact whether or not you personally grow your own hemp fibers to sew your clothes and farm your own organic produce just to stick it to the brand slaves (although I’m being sarcastic here, I would still have to admire the efforts of those who do such). So since brands obviously influence people’s buying habits, they should tout their own sustainability less and instead tout the ideas and creative thinking that gets actual consumers involved in thinking sustainably – as opposed to reading “sustainably” on a tag and buying some crap that now gives you only a false sense of self-satisfaction.

    This may just be my provincial interpretation – but it seems this article is calling on companies to use their brands to assist the consumer in “walking the walk” instead of just using the brand to “talk the talk”.

    I am in no way disparaging those who buy local or believe in sustainability – I’m right there with you. But let’s not berate someone for simply discussing the reasoning and approach to branding. I’d imagine none of the dissenters above would be upset if corporations actively inspired people to think more carefully (or just think at all) about how they use resources. The alternative is the same people living the same way that have been but now having little green leaves on all their favorite swag indicating how sustainable all their stuff is and simultaneously absolving them of personal responsibility because, “Hey, I buy stuff that’s labeled as sustainable – so I did my part.”

    The article is long, but it is genuine. There is value in having the conversation above, even if some readers may require two read-throughs and a syllabus to be a part of it. (I read it twice. No shame.)

  19. Greenpro,

    Thanks for taking the time to type – and for apologising for any typos. I sense any typos crept in due to your sheer anger at the article.

    In my defence, I would like to make three points:

    1. When you describe brands, it seems you are describing labels (which are essentially hollow, I agree). But brands are – can be – much more than that. What about Environmental Leader? This is a brand in that it carries a wealth of connotations for you prior to ‘using’ it. What about the WWF, or UNICEF? These significant organisations consider themselves guardians of brands, and indeed spend a lot of money protecting, building and sharing them. My point is that brands do not have to be assigned to a product. It’s just that normally they are.

    2. You argue that brands cannot build social capital. That is all brands can do. In marketing speak it’s called buzz, or hype, or word of mouth. But in the end, all a brand strives for is to be trusted by consumers, where the owner can then convert that trust into economic returns. Trust – by pretty much all definitions – is a cornerstone of social capital. Without getting into another long post, the trouble is that there are different forms of trust, and brands have, as a whole, been destructive in focusing on a particularly pernicious type.

    3. Last comment – you mention emotion as a bad thing when consumers make decisions. My only point here is that social psychologists are pretty united in saying we are actually better at making decisions based on emotion rather than information processing; and that we actually prefer the process this way. If we continue to ‘appeal’ to consumers with hard, data-driven messaging, then the opportunities for consumers to empathise is drastically reduced. And isn’t empathy – as an outcome of emotional engagement – something very important in the shift to more sustainable behaviour from everyone?


  20. Matt M,

    Thanks very much for coming to my defence! You sum it up better (and more concisely…) than I can. Apologies the original post was long.

    I think you pick up a key point, though: those that work in this area are potentially in two camps. On the one side there are those who believe we just need to awaken the ‘inner social and environmental values’ in everyone, and we’ll crack the demand side. And on the other there are those who realise behaviour change is complex and often relies on less normative tactics. I am in the latter, certainly for a while.

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