Sustainable brands and human benefit; can cash ever be made to care?
Unilever has, for some time, been a leader in brand sustainability. Recent reports name it the most valuable company in the world. Why? Because Unilever realises the vast gains, financial, human and environmental, won by putting sustainability first.
Day by day, new metrics proving what Unilever already knows are encouraging corporate leaders to think green. Recently, The Business and Sustainable Development Commission (BSDC) has estimated sustainable business models could open economic opportunities worth up to US$12 trillion, and increase employment by up to 380 million jobs by 2030.
Contrastingly, poor business practice, especially in the developing world, offers up pollution, unsafe water, lack of sanitation and inadequate hygiene. Every year, these take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years old, say 2 new WHO reports.
Their findings make devastating judgements on the failings of unsustainable brands and business.
The WHO has linked leishmaniasis, a lethal infectious disease, with environmental factors such as climate change, deforestation, building of dams, irrigation schemes and urbanization. The impacts of all are governed entirely by how sustainable today’s multinational brands choose to be.
“A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.
Her colleague Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, is more candid. “A polluted environment is a deadly one, particularly for young children.
“Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water.”
Changing business for better
Paul Polman, Unilever CEO, says that when our economic model is pushing the limits of our planetary boundaries and condemning many to such a future without hope, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a way out.
“Many are now realizing the enormous opportunities that exist for enlightened businesses willing to stand up and address these urgent challenges,” he argues in his capacity as BSDC Commissioner. “But every day that passes is another lost opportunity for action. We must react quickly, decisively and collectively to ensure a fairer and more prosperous world for all.”
Under the SDGs, countries are seeking to end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 by 2030. Tellingly, that’s the exact same year BSDC’s forecasts for trillions of useful dollars, delivered by sustainable business models, could be realised.
Yet more compelling; the sustainable business processes contributing to BSDC’s potential trillions would positively impact on health and pollution throughout the years to 2030.
Such arguments for the human and financial benefits behind sustainable brands are highly persuasive. But there’s a challenging history to evolve first.
The legacy of corporate branding; does profit still come first?
Historically, marketing and business branding has been about quick selling for short term profit, no matter how damaging the product, no matter what the cost. The concept, at the heart of capitalism, is diametrically opposed to sustainability.
Can men like Polman really change this? ‘The big barrier to wholesale transformation, in FMCG particularly, has, until this point, been all about one thing, money,’ writes The Drum, a marketing advice portal.
‘It is pretty difficult to do the ‘right thing’ when the board is answerable to shareholders seeking short-term financial rewards.
‘That is now changing in a big way. Unilever are benefiting greatly from long-term thinking and embracing a sustainable strategy, as their brands who are leading the charge in this space are growing ahead of the market.’
The trouble is, for change to come at the scale needed to make BSDC’s sustainable trillions a reality, the majority, not the minority of brands need to passionately embrace, rather than tacitly accept Unilever’s radical lead.
BSDC argues we must have the courage to strike out in new directions, and embrace an economic model which is not only low-carbon and environmentally sustainable, but also turns poverty, inequality and lack of financial access into new market opportunities for smart, progressive, profit-oriented companies.
It’s in this space that less pollution, healthier children and vital, sustainably oriented corporates could happily meet.
A case for business and SDGs to join
BSDC says business really needs the SDGs; they offer a powerful growth strategy for individual businesses, for business generally and for the world economy.
And, of course, the SDGs offer a compelling story for human health and wellness too. If, collectively, we can get this right, it feels like mutual, sustainable benefits, for human and business, might just be around the corner.
“BSDC, sustainable branding and the SDGs point to a better corporate future,” says Joanna Watchman, CEO here at Content Coms, a specialist low carbon communications firm.
“I’ve watched the corporate space, and how it’s branded, for years. Only now is a true recognition of how sustainable branding and business deliver the most holistic benefits dawning in the boardroom.
“We’re by no means there yet. Vast amounts of work still need to be done, to keep plugging away at the legacy mindset of short termism and set up new business approaches to sustain us into the future.
“Low carbon, energy efficient business will become the norm. Polluting impacts will be controlled and minimised, with vast benefits for health, and more meaningful profits for shareholders too.”
Returning to Unilever, Polman’s leadership is key. Following new trends is frightening. Breaking new business ground is risky. Only when the biggest, strongest multinationals both brand, and act on their feet sustainably will the smallest firms come to the table.
Today, perhaps more than ever before, the tantalising benefits of sustainable capitalism may be within reach. A vexing global political environment and embittered electorate have drawn armies of naysayers; in the US sustainable approaches are under siege.
But it’s from this battle that the new capitalism; more equitable, profitable and sustainable will be born. Sustainability offers benefits Trumps and his coherts can’t imagine or deliver.
The future is in the hands of men like Polman. Their inspirational leadership has never been more necessary.
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