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When Is a Brand Truly Sustainable? When It's Honest

Joanna Watchman's picture
Content Coms

Joanna is Founder and Managing Director of Content Coms, a B2B communications consultancy specialising in the energy and technology sectors. An award-winning communications consultant with over...

  • Member since 2018
  • 5 items added with 2,589 views
  • Nov 19, 2016


Today virtually every global brand produces CSR reports, as sustainability becomes a key business battleground. But still a sense of mistrust persists.

At Content Coms, our business is low carbon communications. We pick sustainable companies to work with, so that we can align the need to make money with social and environmental objectives.

Many firms claim similar goals. But when you look closely at the top end of global business, you realise it takes a lot of research to objectively judge the sustainability winners and losers out there.

Does anyone have time to thoroughly interrogate the sustainability of brands?

Imagine you’re a marketing manager, seeking corporate sponsorship for a major event. You stumble across McDonalds’ latest CSR report; it makes for riveting reading, and after all sorts of hard work you get the company onside.

But then you discover this. McDonalds 2020 CSR pillars, Food, Sourcing, Planet, People and Community appear to be made of sand.

A couple of years ago, Ethical Corporation revealed that, back then, McDonald’s said it “cannot prescribe” CSR and sustainability measures to its franchisees or suppliers.

Why does that matter? Well, at year-end 2013, more than 80% of McDonald’s restaurants were franchised. It also promised its aspirational goals would focus on its top nine markets by revenue. Two of these markets, Brazil and Japan, were entirely operated by franchisees, and McDonald’s relied on the accuracy of performance data provided by their management.

In other words, McDonalds set vastly impressive sustainability targets. But it didn’t shout about the fact it didn’t actually impose them on most of its restaurants.

Back in 2014, McDonalds also said it would lead development of global principles and criteria for sustainable beef, with a view to begin buying “verified sustainable beef” by 2016.

And, all of its of coffee and fish would be verified as “supporting sustainable production” by 2020.

The problem? At the time, McDonald’s hadn’t yet defined what “verified sustainable beef” or “supporting sustainable production” even meant. Bob Langert, vice-president for corporate social responsibility at McDonald’s, told Ethical Corporation locally based metrics to determine this were “under development”.

So was, or for that matter is McDonalds ethical and sustainable or not?

Complexity stymies progress

There isn’t the space in this blog to deeply examine McDonalds CSR performance to date, indeed even NGOs like Greenpeace struggle to separate truth from fiction.

What we can consider is how reputations, brands and sustainability should harmonise. In this article, Bob Langert, Editor at Large, GreenBiz Group and Former Vice President of Sustainability, McDonald’s, says that as a brand; ‘Your reputation has much less to do with what you do than with how you do it.’

He could be right. We haven’t spoken with him personally, but we think he is saying that if you make only a small sustainable target, and work towards it, that’s ok.

Also, if you make a big commitment, fail to meet it, but accept that honestly, that’s ok too. In a nutshell, if you act transparently and honestly, and set the right targets, you still achieve good, both for the environment and your brand, even when you fall short.

So is honesty the best policy?

For the reasons explained, we at Content Coms think brands overall, and the push for sustainability need more honesty. There’s so little time for normal people, or even CSR experts, to constantly analyse the CSR reports emerging from today’s brands with frightening regularity.

The need to be green has galvanised business, but scared it too. That’s a shame; there’s no need to be afraid if your brand isn’t perfect, as long as you are trying to improve, honestly. Tell that story; highlight your mistakes, don’t hide them.

When brands do this, they achieve trust, and they offer humility. Put together, these deliver a more powerful message on sustainability than a whole host of cleverly worded red herrings.

Sustainable brands and businesses are crucial to the future we all desire. We will build a low carbon world, and businesses like McDonalds will help create it. But honesty is the most crucial element to helping us get there; and fear of admitting when we fail and stumble has to end.

In LEGO’s own words, its purpose is, “Not just about products, it is about realising the human possibility,” But that possibility is driven only by being honest. Otherwise brands delude themselves and disenfranchise customers.

The reality is; historical greenwash has been driven by fear of failure. But it’s in the failing that tomorrow’s brands will succeed, by learning for the better. Embracing that, delivering transparent, humble businesses, will revolutionise brands’ relationship with the green agenda.

Photo Credit: Christian Reimer via Flickr

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 19, 2016

Joanna – successful, humble businesses are an oxymoron. Successful businesses are so because they’re not humble. They sell their products – categorically – as something slightly larger than they are. For that reason, searching for honesty in the complex and highly-debatable world of “corporate sustainability” is a fool’s errand. Individuals and companies will do what it takes to succeed.

For social concerns – air quality, water quality, climate – we cannot leave it up to individuals to make the call, because we will fail. We’re asking people to pay more for electricity because of possible ramifications in the next century, when all they care about is putting food on the table.

So-called “distributed generation” embraces the toxic myth that if everyone can generate their own electricity it will be cleaner than if done by a few well-regulated, centralized facilities. An acquaintance who lived in the Phillippines after WWII told me when grid electricity became undependable, the first thing residents in his hometown did was buy coal and wood for their energy needs, with the local air becoming unbreathable.

There’s a lesson here which applies to much more than climate: address public problems with public solutions. If we rely on self-interest, we’re screwed.

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Nov 20, 2016

If you manage to label your product as “green” or “sustainable” you are also able to suck in public support.
Energy from nuclear is left in the cold and is only tolerated if it acts as backup for sun and wind.
In this way the logic is that sun and wind are parasites, sucking the economy out of the stable and non-polluting suppliers – nuclear.
And later when “the greens” happily can announce that nuclear is out, then they ask “where is the 24-7”

Joanna Watchman's picture
Thank Joanna for the Post!
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