Moving Up to Sustainability 2.0

Five Trends Shaping the New Agenda

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Becky Willan
Becky Willan
As we celebrate Earth Day 2010, many of us working in the sustainability industry are reflecting on what we've achieved and all that still needs to be done to create a more sustainable future for business, people and the environment. I discussed this a few weeks ago with Robert Nuttall, who is somewhat of a celebrity on the British sustainability scene for leading the communications behind Marks & Spencer's award-winning sustainability strategy, Plan A.

He said something that got me thinking: He believes that we are currently seeing the emergence of a second generation of sustainability professionals -- people who not only have a practical understanding of environmental and social responsibility within the corporate world but also recognize how this intrinsically relates to brand-building and consumer engagement.

I'd like to use the term "sustainability 2.0" to talk about this emerging space, in which the world of corporate social responsibility meets the world of brand communications. There's one fundamental difference between sustainability 2.0 and how we've approached things in the past. For some time now, people have recognized that sustainability can be a brand-builder. But using sustainability to build your brand can only be a successful strategy if it starts from a consumer perspective. Sustainability 2.0 is about organizations creating positive effects in the lives of people in three ways: as individuals, helping meet personal needs, goals and ambitions; within their communities, sparking cultural movements, supporting causes and making connections; and within the world at large, tackling environmental issues and enabling greener lifestyles.

So what's shaping this new landscape? Five fundamental trends are influencing the sustainability 2.0 agenda.

From top-down squeezing to people-powered engines

Increasingly, people will bypass formal business and institutional structures to create their own ways of doing things. Much of this is enabled by developments in digital technology. One example is Zopa, a peer-to-peer lending and borrowing exchange that cuts out the middleman, creating more favorable (and therefore perhaps more sustainable) rates for both sides. While still very small, this model is highly scalable and could pose a real threat to traditional banking institutions unless they start to think about how they create value for their customers.

Offline, there are also the beginnings of people-powered sustainability movements. In the U.K., where the government has been slow to increase renewables in the energy mix, there's been strong interest in community-owned renewable energy. And Transition Towns, a scheme that promotes sustainable living and builds local resilience for a low-carbon future, has quickly spread from the U.K. to the U.S., New Zealand and Chile.

With consumers challenging formal institutional structures, brands will need to figure out what role they play in this new, people-powered landscape.

From educating to enabling

As someone who's worked both the client side (the Body Shop) and the consultancy side on sustainability-led projects, I used to think that one key role of CSR practitioners was to educate people about the importance of sustainability. Now I see things differently. No one has really cracked the attitude-behavior gap in which people say they care passionately about protecting the planet but do little to reduce their environmental impact. There's a huge role for brands to enable people to actually do things differently and better than they could before. This approach helps answer the question posed above—it's not about just selling more stuff, but about helping people do things for themselves. Making it easy and incentivized is key.

Orange RockCorps is a pretty good example of this. It's a program that aims to get young people involved in volunteering. In return for four hours of their time supporting an Orange RockCorps community project, they get a free ticket to a live music event. My only criticism, and this comes from a brand perspective, is that the program could be more deeply embedded into the brand, making it something that only Orange could deliver.

From siloed working to collaborative practices

Between departments

With a media landscape that has become increasingly fragmented, always on and on-demand, the consensus in the marketing industry is that today it's all about content. It's fair to say that brand marketers have a tougher job coming up with content that will engage and sustain the interest of their target audience. On the flip side, sustainability, if communicated with credibility and creativity, provides exactly the kind of substance that meets this marketing challenge.

To me, it's pretty obvious that marketing and CSR should work more closely together. The problem is that today, sustainability is all too often seen as a separate discipline tucked away in a lonely corner of the corporate brand. Closer relationships between CSR and marketing teams, such as at BSkyB, which has introduced a campaign called "Rainforest Rescue," will unlock the real value that sustainability presents in engaging consumers in issues that matter to them.

Between companies

Beyond internal collaboration, there will also be more interorganizational cooperation. The Green Xchange is a Web-based marketplace that enables Nike and nine other organizations (including Creative Commons, IDEO and Yahoo) to collaborate and share intellectual property, making sustainable innovation faster and more far reaching than ever before.

Between people and companies

We've already seen "crowdsourcing" become an important feature within the world of advertising. Frito-Lay's Doritos has pioneered this approach by getting individuals to submit ideas that will eventually be made into ads. It won't be long before it plays an influential role in sustainability. Last year, I worked on one such project. We produced a "tweetbook," ThisPlace09, to remind delegates at the Copenhagen conference about the local, personal and immediate impacts of climate change. We "crowdsourced" people's stories from all over the world through Twitter and got 18 different artists to illustrate the messages.

From what you say to what you do

While making claims about the environmental and social credentials of your brand will still be important in helping consumers make more-informed purchasing decisions, it will be doing and not saying that really unlocks the brand benefits of sustainability. As a result, there will be many more proactive projects from brand marketers that replace conventional ad campaigns with initiatives that make a positive difference in the lives of consumers. PepsiCo shocked the ad industry recently when, for the first time in 23 years, it didn't purchase a spot at the Super Bowl. Instead, it set up Pepsi Refresh, a social media program that allows people and organizations to get funding for and support grassroots community projects.

From CSR reporting to open brand behavior

While no one is suggesting that you give up CSR reporting for good, we do need to question that value created by taking the traditional approach of producing a lengthy and data-heavy corporate document. This year, we will see companies thinking more carefully about how people access the information and how all the data we work so hard to collect, analyze and disseminate can be put to good use.

This is already happening within companies that are taking an innovative approach to CSR reporting. Some, such as Tesco, are letting their audiences tailor the information they are looking for against themes or metrics, thereby offering a more personalized and engaging experience. Others, such as Cisco Systems, are using data to tell a compelling story through the innovative use of such media as infographics. Cisco has developed an interactive map that gives an overview of CSR impacts and initiatives in the markets in which it operates.

Within each of these trends, digital technology—in particular, social media—has a very important role to play in shaping the landscape. Sustainability and social media are certainly natural bedfellows; that much has already been established. Both are about accountability, transparency and engagement. But I'm not convinced that anyone has really figured out how to make them work together as a brand-builder. To do that, we have to go beyond thinking about social media as an end in itself and think about what it can help us achieve.

Where social media has the biggest impact is in enabling greater openness and transparency between brands and people. At Given, we've been working on developing a platform that uses social media to enhance and develop the remit of CSR teams as the custodians of transparency and open brand behavior. We hope that this kind of approach will give a much-needed purpose and substance to many corporate-led social media strategies that would otherwise end up involving a fan page on Facebook and not much else.

Becky Willan is director of Given London, an agency she founded earlier this year with David Hawksworth to bring together the customer insight and creativity of brand marketing with the robust social and environmental knowledge of sustainability consulting.
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