by Simon Goodall, OPX
Think back 10 years to a pre-Blair, pre i-pod, pre 9/11 world. Think about what your perceptions would have been of somebody interested in the environment. I suspect that you would have pictured someone at the margins of serious political debate or business thinking. A tree-hugging idealist whose voice would be largely unheard however valid their thinking.
Now think about today's world.
Think about a world where two of the UK's most fundamentally conservative institutions – M&S and the Daily Telegraph – have placed concern for the environment at the centre of their communications and business agenda.
Within a decade our tree hugger has turned into Gordon Brown or David Cameron, Richard Branson or M&S CEO Stuart Rose – in fact anyone aspiring to a serious view on the key issues facing society.
As one hardened sustainability specialist recently put it to us, "After 23 years of being treated as a total irrelevance, I'm now the most in-demand person in our business."
Groundswell or bandwagon?
Accepting that issues environmental are now big news, it must be right to question whether we are simply looking at a passing fad or something more fundamental.
A cursory look at the facts and issues involved would suggest the latter.
Climate change is no longer a matter of conjecture but – post-Stern and the UN Framework Convention – a widely accepted truth of globe-altering proportions. Rapid depletion of fossil fuels and other natural resources, is likewise so obviously a major concern that even the most ostrich-like of political leaders is now talking about the need for security of energy supply and use of renewable resources.
These issues are not short term, nor easily solvable.
We may all get a little weary of daily media coverage on the same subjects but so all-pervading are they becoming – effecting how we work, live, travel, shop, eat, wash, even brush our teeth! – that it seems certain that they will remain hugely important to all of us, even if specific points of focus change and develop over time.
From our individual attitude to dealing with a single sheet of waste paper, to profound debates about global energy provision, there is now a groundswell of opinion about these issues that is too far-reaching to be a short-term fad.
Business joins the bunny lovers!
The future of the planet, our access to energy and resources, and the general health and well being of people round the globe are unquestionably worth all our attention. But for many people in business, these issues were seen as the province of government, (effecting commercial activity only through law and regulations) or a small group of specialist environmentally aware entrepreneurs (the late Anita Roddick at Body Shop was a prime example).
That situation appears to have changed and done so quickly. An ever widening spectrum of organisations are now aware that the benefits of a sustainable approach are actually very direct and very quickly tangible. For example:
- Improved, sustainable production processes can quickly have a big impact on energy use, material consumption, waste and ultimately overall costs.
- Better designed buildings and premises that harness natural ventilation and light to create better environments where people will want to work; enhancing both productivity and employee retention.
- Imaginative, sustainable solutions to products and services that quickly deliver competitive edge in a marketplace where awareness of green issues is growing. In general customers (business or consumer) want to make a positive environmental contribution, provided that the end result is as good or better than what they were getting before. That thinking applies whether you are taking about a whole house or a packet of biscuits.
- Increasingly, good environmental practice will become a determining factor across whole supply chains. Business will be required to show a good approach to win business and contracts (especially from government). Moreover, they will want and need their suppliers to set the same standards. Those businesses not addressing environmental issues may quickly find themselves out of step with the commercial environment around them.
To quote former US Vice President Al Gore "…there need not be any conflict between the environment and the economy. We will find the way not only to reconcile (those), but to find new profits and new opportunities as we do the right thing."
What's branding and communication got to do with it?
With accusations of 'greenwash' already beginning to emerge, it can be strongly argued that an organisation's attitude to these environmental issues should not be shaped by brand or communications. However, it is also true that the most environmentally committed of organisations need to get their story and messages correct, internally and externally, if they are going to achieve all their aspirations.
As always, long-term success will come to those who can walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
We believe the following factors will shape whether an organisation can successfully address environmental issues to enhance their brand:
- A core commitment from senior management to real change – based on a belief in the material benefits to the business as well as to the planet. Richard Branson at Virgin is a good example of someone who has taken a positive lead in this area through recent commitments to substantially support research and development in sustainable technology.
- A breadth of thinking, that looks beyond being simply 'less bad' to fundamentally changing products and/or processes for the better. Toyota and Honda have both provided examples of this by making hybrid car technology available to a global mass market.
- A willingness to gain strong internal buy-in from your own people as a first priority. Sun Microsystems have taken a positive 'practice what we preach' approach in this respect through a comprehensive 'top-down' approach to sustainability and their 'Open Work' scheme which facilitates flexible working patterns and in-turn reduces the need for work related travel.
- The conviction to make clear, time-specific, commitments on particular issues, not vague promises that cannot be measured. M&S have been very strong with their 'Plan A' initiative, making their commitments – packaging, raw materials, energy use, waste and fair trade – extremely clear throughout their stores.
- An acceptance that many small steps forward are an acceptable route to progress, provided they are shaped by a bigger vision. The Co-operative Group has been exemplary, setting out a very clear sustainability vision that is then implemented in many ways across all operations – banking, supermarket retail, funeral care, travel, insurance and legal services.
- A commitment to stay the course and 'go where it hurts' in order to achieve substantial change, not mere window dressing. Simply switching to recycled paper and putting up a few bike racks will increasingly not convince anyone.
There is no better example in this area than flooring company InterfaceFLOR, who have made fundamental changes to their whole business in a bid to lead the way in environmental enterprise.
The words of InterfaceFLOR Chairman, Ray Anderson, succinctly sum up this fundamentalist approach to delivering real change: "I believe we have come to the threshold of the next industrial revolution. At InterfaceFLOR, we seek to become the first sustainable corporation in the world, and, following that, the first restorative company."
Across all these factors one fundamental principle applies – superficial actions will increasingly deliver superficial results. In today's sustainability-obsessed media age, we are all experts now. We will all quickly learn when we are being 'greenwashed'.
A story to tell
OPX have always believed that good communications and branding are about telling your story with integrity and impact.
Issues around environmental performance and sustainability are certainly current, but we believe they are also going to have a profound effect on long-term success for organisations of all sizes, across all sectors.
We also believe that those organisations will make a huge mistake if they think that communications alone are the key to dealing with this. Style with no substance will inevitably deliver poor results.
But for those organisations taking a more enlightened and substantive approach, communications will be key in creating real change and real benefit: delivering buy-in, creating momentum, encouraging others to follow suit, highlighting real market-edge and improving internal and external reputation.
All told there is a big opportunity to tell a great story, provided that it is based on hard-facts and not just wishful-thinking.