Sustainability Beyond Eco-friendly

A Bellwether Insight

Photo: Retha Ferguson
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Sustainability is not a new topic. It’s something that has come up in all of our lifetimes, in different forms. In the 1970’s, it was the energy crisis. In the 1990’s, it was a “warning to humanity.” In the 2010’s, it was a “climate emergency.” The earliest environmental laws were in the 1860’s, coming out of concerns over air pollution in Britain. Do you see the common thread through all of these? Yup…the environment. Does sustainability beyond eco-friendly even exist?

The discussion around sustainability has largely been around this singular enigma. Sure, we also talk about human rights issues like child labor, living wages and workplace conditions; but, when tasked with making your business more sustainable, it’s always the environment first. What we have found is that this enigma is polarizing, and never enough to convince bigger brands to truly embrace a sustainable future.

So, how can we flip the concept around? How can we transform the concept of sustainability into something more comprehensive? Let’s start with a simple question: will your business be here in 30 years? We could argue, with all the recent shake-ups in our industry, to change that question to: will your business be here in 10 years? 5 years? If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that you need to protect yourself.

We believe that thinking about sustainability a little differently, beyond just eco-friendly, can transform the way your organization thinks, the way it solves problems, develops product and retains talent. We believe that engaging in a comprehensive mindset shift within your organization can reduce everyday frustrations of your employees and workflow friction, while you increase productivity and your profits. How do we do that?

Shifting the leadership mindset

For the leaders that are focused solely on the bottom line, trying to institute a recycling program, a charity tie-in, or a complete restructuring of your product development process to include an end to end approach will be…let’s say, tricky. Most leaders will ask: how do I spend the least amount of money on this to make the most profit? Some of you reading this may say “ugh…those profit peddlers…can they just not?” While we understand that this ‘money man’ mentality has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, we still need these people. Keeping an eye on costs, profits and shareholder value is still a big part of the ‘will your business be around in 10 years’ pie. To convince these people to embrace a sustainable future will take a slightly different approach.

When everyone finds value, your business becomes sustainable.

Surprise! Sustainability can make money. According to the Global Fashion Agenda, investments in resource efficiency, secure work environments and sustainable materials can boost profits by 1-2 points in EBIT margin by 2030. 

Levi’s partnered with World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation to work with six manufacturers and improve their sustainability. They advised them on ways to use less water and energy, reducing their emissions by 20% on average; and, combined, the companies saved $1 million. These were short-term wins for the companies, proving that sustainable practices can quickly increase your profits through decreased expenses. The company is now working on providing financing to manufacturers for initiatives that need more capital.

By focusing on green-plus marketing, you can transform your messaging to include additional benefits to your products while still finding the exact right solution to consumer wants and needs. This leads to an increase in the amount a customer purchases and more repeat purchases. You’ve fulfilled a need for the customer when they purchase your product, and they fulfill your need of making money from the sale of a product. Because you put into place policies to reduce your environmental impact and increase the well-being of your workforce, you have fulfilled the needs of the environment to support a place to do business. This moment right here is called shared value, my friend. When everyone finds value, your business becomes sustainable.

For anyone in leadership reading this…are you getting more convinced? Stop it, we’re blushing.

Shifting the employee mindset

Speaking of value, how can you provide a better workplace for your employees, retain talent and increase productivity? Not all employees will embrace sustainable business practices, and it’ll be up to your leadership teams and passionate individuals within your organization to educate the workforce on the benefits.

Once your employees embrace sustainability and become educated on it, the everyday choices they make will be more informed. As we know, one of the starting points of sustainability is design. The fabrics, trims, silhouettes and so on that go into the design define the impact of the garment. If a designer or product developer knows how their choices affect people (your workforce, your consumers), profits (your moolah, your future spend), and planet (your raw materials), they will make better decisions. In the upper rungs of your company, if your COO is educated on where sustainable investments can pay off, they will make better decisions about operational investments.

We can put this concept of education on warp speed if we incentivize. Start volunteering programs to get people together and socialize (safely, of course). Create a payback program that gives people money back or PTO time for making sustainable purchases. Gamify your educational trainings so that it’s as much about team-building as it is learning about sustainability. All of these suggestions have the added benefit of making an employee feel respected and wanted, which leads to overall better productivity and decision-making with your business health in mind. Retaining employees will save you money and develop better talent over time.

Shifting the consumer mindset

Here is where your business will need to pick up the slack. The truth is, that while consumers care about sustainability, they don’t actually buy sustainable products and rarely consider sustainability when making purchases. However, when they find out your business is greenwashing or participating in harmful business practices, they will be the first to cancel you.

We must find ways to educate the consumer in a way that informs them about our sustainability practices and convinces them that buying green is better. Using concepts like green plus marketing can help find the real reasons a customer is buying a product (things like price, quality, need fulfillment, etc) while still highlighting what makes your product ‘green.’

Download our free guide to green plus marketing here.

After a customer learns about sustainability enough to exhibit sustainable behavior, you’ll need to provide a way for them to easily follow through with said behavior. This will be things like in-store recycling programs and education about laundering and using your goods. These initiatives have benefits for you too. By educating a customer about how to care for their clothing, it increases its lifecycle, thus increasing its inherent value to the consumer. Your goods suddenly appear more ‘hearty’ and ‘higher quality,’ which is more likely to demand a full price purchase by the customer, and will keep them coming back for repeat purchases.

By focusing on green-plus marketing, you can transform your messaging to include additional benefits to your products while still finding the exact right solution to consumer wants and needs.

We’d also be remiss if we did not mention that you do actually need to follow through with your sustainability goals, too. We always used to look to brands like Everlane for their ‘radical transparency,’ but with recent events we continue to realize that consumers will not be silenced or taken advantage of. Make sure you truly make the mind shift towards sustainability and work to authentically achieve it.

To learn more about how you can implement long lasting and profitable sustainability practices into your organization, check out our courses. You can also find a few starting points of sustainability on our sustainability Quick Insights page.