Use sustainability to inspire business, brand and employer brand transformation

| November 3, 2022

We’re now living in the decade towards 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, and with COP27 literally around the corner, we’re faced with increasing awareness and experience of the gaps in the plan – post COVID recovery, the climate crisis and growing inequality.

Customer, employee and stakeholder demand is increasing for organisations to be responsible. The demand for transparency and good governance has never been so high. Nor has sustainability savviness – greenwash, blue wash, rainbow wash, woke wash, at your peril.

Businesses are realising their people have limited understanding of sustainability and its importance to their stakeholders.

Furthermore, a lack of alignment across the business – an ethereal purpose with no connection between stakeholders and the business, operational siloes and disparate business, brand and employer strategies – means that people don’t have visibility across the business and are at risk of making promises that are inflated and can’t be delivered upon.

It’s time to stop kidding ourselves and our stakeholders.

Historically sustainability was associated more closely with the environment. When organisations mislead consumers about their environmentally friendly products, services or practices, they are greenwashing. This includes the misuse of terms such as natural, organic and eco-friendly and the use of fabricated data, claims and third-party endorsement badges.

As the broader meaning of sustainability has gained momentum, it has given rise to blue-washing – misleading consumers about the sustainability practices of an organisation across any and all of the pillars of environmental, societal and governance. This could involve highlighting “doing good” in one area whilst everything else is not performing to that standard, highly subjective and/or unmeasurable claims.

Another form of this is rainbow-washing, whereby an organisation’s connection to the UN 17 SDGs is pronounced but the organisation’s action to contribute to those goals remains unclear.

Finally woke-washing, whereby the organisation or brand’s higher purpose is communicated to customers and not delivered across the organisation, to all stakeholders. A brand promises a better life with the one hand, and with the other sells mobile plans or mortgages that people cannot afford to pay off, charges fees to dead customers, underpays casual employees and maltreatment of gig economy contractors, whole communities with sweatshops and blood diamonds.

What are some steps you can take to avoid the dirty washing and, instead, inspire the transformation your stakeholders demand, building your reputation as a responsible business?

Use your sustainability strategy to shift business focus from short-term profits for shareholders to long-term value for all stakeholders.

I remember one of my first managers asking me to use the word “sustain” not “maintain” in my strategies. Maintain means to keep as is. Sustain means to grow and nourish. Sustainability means long-term. Just the intent of the word turns your business strategy from short term to long term, and its impact pillars – environment, society, workplace and marketplace – shift the focus from short-term profits for shareholders to creating long-term value for all stakeholders – customers and employees, partners and suppliers, investors, communities and the environment. This is the purpose of a business as redefined by the ASX, the US Business Roundtable and the World Economic Forum Davos Manifesto in 2019.

Pull your sustainability strategy through to business, brands and employer brand.

Just as its important for your purpose and values to drive your business, brands and employer brand, it is critical for your sustainability strategy to be inextricably linked to your business, brands and employer brand (which should also be aligned not disparate).

Use your materiality assessment of what’s important to each stakeholder group to pull the relevant sustainability issues and initiatives through to your corporate, customer and employer brands, your investor, customer and employee value propositions, strategic marketing, communications and experiences.

Track performance to prevent any kind of dirty washing.

To prevent green, blue, rainbow and woke washing, you need to know where the gaps are so you don’t overpromise and underdeliver to your customers, employees and wider groups of stakeholders.

Through an initial assessment and tracking performance over time, ensure that the promises being communicated are consistently delivered to meet expectations at every experience, across the whole business, over time.

Stakeholders seek honesty, transparency and action. If you are working towards various sustainability goals, then be clear about your intentions, where you are now and how you’ll get there. However if you are “on the way towards” everything, it would be a good idea to seek a quick win that you can fast-track, so you can at least promise something tangible.

Mobilise the forces.

With meaningful work one of the top drivers of employees’ reason to join, stay and thrive at an organisation, an organisation where employees align to its purpose and values and can participate in the purpose and sustainability strategy will attract, retain and engage talent in a competitive market.

Research indicates that customers are turning to responsible organisations with an aligned purpose and sustainability philosophy, not just for buying good for themselves but for helping them make an impact (or less of one!) in the world.

Within your brand and employer brand, you have the opportunity to mobilise your employees to deliver against the sustainability strategy, and through your employees, extending that opportunity to your customers and communities, suppliers and partners, investors and other stakeholder groups.

We have developed a Sustainability Strategy Alignment Workshop for business, brand and employer brands, stakeholder, customer and employee value propositions, strategic marketing, communications and experiences. It can be conducted virtually, face-to-face or hybrid. If you’re interested in learning more, contact