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Latest industry views and advice

September 27

How does a high-profile business talk about sustainability in practice – and without running the gauntlet of greenwashing?

Following on from our previous post which put forward the case for companies meeting the challenge of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, we hear from bicycle brand, Brompton on what sustainable actions it takes and how it communicates this:

Sustainability today – according to Louisa Holbrook, Head of Sustainability at Brompton Bicycle – means more than ever.

“[It’s about] the challenges we face as humans: social responsibility, value to society, communities, supply chain communities. Sustainable business is being around for the long term; on a journey of continuous improvement with no end point,” she said.

Her role at the iconic bicycle maker is to focus on what’s important to the company from a sustainability perspective; understanding where the impacts are, mapping them out, monitoring and calculating them.

And this involves conducting materiality assessments to identify what’s important to the industry, their employees and in the context of legislation.

“Setting foundations to build on – the ‘unsexy’ foundations – is not a one liner but to build an accountable strategy and an integrated, sustainable business,” she added.

The sustainability “elephant in the room”, according to Holbrook, is consumption. This means not only making products from more sustainable materials but also reducing the use of resources overall. And this leads to business models less about “selling more stuff” but, for example, subscription services that consumers can enjoy without ownership.

Brompton itself introduced a bicycle rental service in which the company owns the product and extends its lifecycle – plus, enabling it to recycle 98% when controlling the process.

Culture/planet/people/activism

Under these four headings, Brompton is able to focus its sustainability plans:

Culture: this is about purpose-driven decision making that go beyond just the financial to the “triple bottom line”: social and environmental impact plus the financial.

Planet: having a science-based target enables the company to play its part in keeping global temperatures to a target level. And that involves having a roadmap to deliver that. “It’s incredible for a company to put evidence behind [its] claims,” Holbrook said.

People: this includes having codes of conduct and actions such as auditing suppliers to address the social and environmental issues in the countries companies are sourcing from.

Activism: for example, sharing a code of conduct with suppliers and engaging with them about it; involving them to understand the value also to their business (e.g., paying living wages and helping retention of staff).

What’s the cost and benefit of sustainability?

 How does a sustainability department prove value when most businesses speak primarily in financial terms?

Holbrook points to activities at Brompton that make cash savings, such as minimising waste and creating efficiency as well as making progress in environmental terms.

However, there are bigger rewards at stake, she explained: “While all businesses are feeling the pinch financially – and this puts pressure on sustainability departments – this responsibility is a licence to operate as a business, not a nice to have. This is what builds resilience and creates loyalty for the future.”

Greenwashing and the role of marketing/communications

“Greenwashing” – when companies make claims that are misleading consumers – has become headline news.

Which is why, Holbrook said, companies need “transparency, honesty and authenticity around what you’re saying. It builds a stronger brand when you’re honest about what’s lacking and the plans you have to address it.”

An offshoot of greenwashing – “greenblushing” – is when companies are actively pursuing sustainability but not talking about it. “That’s not a good place either, because how can you inspire change in others?” Holbrook added.

Her experience working cross-functionally with marketing at Brompton demonstrated how the power of language can take the science of sustainability and make it accessible. It has also enabled an internal communications campaign to help staff see that “sustainability is not a department”, but everyone’s role. Communications have helped frame it in a way that makes it tangible.

“Marketers can inform positive change and change behaviours…alongside commercial success.

“There’s no silver bullet and companies can get disappointed by that – such as finding a new material but there might be something in it that’s not sustainable. But it’s about having a wide view of all the potential impacts and which ones you’re in a position to change,” Holbrook said.

Thanks to the Marketing Meetup for staging the interview with Louisa Holbrook, which can be viewed in full here.

Image: “Brompton Bicycles” by Stephen Cannon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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