Working Towards a new Sustainability.

In what can only be described as a perfect storm of challenges and crises; the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, Brexit, social inequalities…

...there has been a fundamental shift in everything we thought we knew about customer ‘perspective’ and motivations.

Organisations in the Built Environment have been caught in the very eye of this storm, navigating through not only supply chain disruption, skilled labour shortages and ever-shrinking margins but are now also increasingly held to account on their direct impact on the environment and the personal health and wellbeing of our communities.
With clients and specifiers increasingly asking new, tough questions and seeking ever greater transparency, now is not the time for these brands to respond with (seemingly) poignant posts and carefully selected hashtags. Brands need to dig much deeper…
We grab a coffee with Regenerative Provocateur and Consultant Martin Brown, to understand the magnitude of both the challenges and opportunities for brands in the sector.

5 in 5

Q1. This is without doubt a challenging time for brands in the sector and with climate change consistently topping the agenda, we must start thinking and behaving differently. How urgent is the issue?

We are now witnessing global and local weather patterns and incidents that we thought belonged firmly in the future. And alongside the climate crisis, we are also seeing a rapid worldwide decline in biodiversity and natural environments. Alarmingly, we are experiencing these changes at only a 1.2 deg c warming increase putting into perspective the targets of 1.5, 2.0 degrees or even worse.

When we consider the challenges we face today, particularly those of climate and ecology, but also of health, physical and mental, our relationship with nature is a common factor.

The IPCC Climate Assessment Reports published in 2022 illustrate a rapid acceleration in climate breakdown, that many of the impacts will be more severe than predicted and the window of opportunity for avoiding the worst is closing. The report does note however that much action is happening, yet it is not rapid enough, and it is uneven.

The reports are clear in that action has to be a ‘whole of society’ response, no one can opt-out, and we all need to actively opt-in with solutions, and to use our sense of agency in the world. As individuals, businesses and brands, we will increasingly make purchasing, specification or supply decisions to ensure a just equitable world and that we have a thriving planet for future generations.

My advice for brands is to ‘Act Now’. For our sector that is a significant contributor to climate change, it has become non-negotiable.

Q2. Everyone has a ‘Sustainability Policy’. Will it be enough?

Sustainability, since 1987 based upon the Brundtland definition “doing nothing today to compromise future generations”, has unfortunately failed and will not arrest the climate and ecological collapse we are witnessing. If this, as in many cases, remains as the essence of your brand sustainability, then you are in need of a new approach.

With words such as eco, sustainable and green now perhaps too frequently used, they have become empty words, with far too many different and confusing interpretations, leading to a lack of trust in the whole climate change conversation. We have created a mask that allows many to hide behind, to do as little as possible and a license to greenwash?

Unsurprisingly, many now seek a new perspective, one that will put new life into sustainability-as-usual efforts, be more meaningful and challenging approaches. Whilst the world of sustainability will never be black and white, increasingly we must be questioning whether our actions, business or brands are degenerative or regenerative.

Q3. So how do we make the difference that is needed

Regenerative thinking will not give us the magic formula or a blueprint, but it will enable us to ask different and better questions that will lead to better solutions, services and products. It will enable the shift from product sustainability to a regenerative brand culture, one that is valuable and responsible.

It promotes connected rather than siloed approaches and importantly enables us to focus on potential and not just on problems, enabling organisations, buildings, products and brands to thrive as part of, rather than apart from, the natural living systems on which we depend.

Yet regenerative is not just something that we do, but rather something we are or become, and how we act in the world where we live, work and play. And it is through being regenerative that we will improve both what we do and who we are in respect of the climate, economic and social challenges we face.

Q4. And in a world that already thinks it is Sustainable, how do you demonstrate your level of commitment?

Being transparent with a commitment and reporting on actions that go beyond sustainability-as-usual need not be overly complicated and can be linked with existing management reporting and verified through ISO 14001, BCorp or similar accreditation schemes. Regular website updates and branding messages will demonstrate progress, transparency and confidence to your customers and clients.

Transparency in your products can be demonstrated for example through the Declare label from the International Living Future Institute. Declare is a Built Environment and Interiors product label, the equivalent of the food label that enables informed decisions. Declare labels list ingredients, impact on health against the Red List, (a listing of chemicals known to have harmful effects on humans and the environment), provides information on where the product comes from, its carbon footprint and end of life options.

Q5. When it comes to climate change and its place in brand strategy, what’s your best advice?

Develop a regenerative culture. Embracing a culture of incremental regenerative improvements, whilst not shying from transformational action, would be a wise and prudent move for brand strategy. Over the coming years, the steps we take on climate-related matters will be ever challenging, yet also providing one of the biggest opportunities we have ever had. Challenges and opportunities that will need authentic passion, creativity, disruption and real leadership. Opportunities that sound right up brand’s street.

A view from the Brand Experts

Nicky Jepson, Marketing Director, Workhouse

The Re-generation of Brands

Martin’s words provide a stark reminder that successful brands are only as good as their relevance. Climate change, as he poignantly reminds us, has become non-negotiable and a responsibility and priority for all. It will become increasingly legislated for and is already a key driver of purchase decisions throughout the supply chain. So when it comes to building ‘regenerative thinking’ into your brand, where should you start?

Get perspective

Everything you thought you knew has likely changed so as a priority, it’s important to get context for your brand. Brands thrive on loyalty, but loyalties are only as good as your relevancy right now. You might have the best reputation for aesthetic design but if your product can’t be recycled, or involves an environmentally damaging manufacturing process, you’ll lose not only the specification but the loyalty too, no matter its heritage.

Data can only take you so far on this journey so get on the road, walk a mile (or two) in your customers’ shoes and see the world through their eyes. Understand their motivations, frustrations, challenges, choices, aspirations. Ask them directly, watch them work, feel their pain, get your context

Think beyond sustainability

Martin said it. Sustainability alone will just not cut it. And the brutal reality is that the future of our planet requires a more transformative, proactive approach.

But brands that are genuinely ‘regenerative’ in their thinking and behaviours are already a step ahead. They have an eye firmly on the future, focusing on long-term brand equity rather than short-term profits. They think bigger, more laterally, more responsibly. They invest in innovation and creative leadership to challenge the status quo. They deliver more value by focusing on proactively enriching the lives and environments of all the people they touch, whether directly and indirectly. All the principles of brand building that ultimately pay dividends. Think regeneratively.

Be authentically passionate

Martin speaks regularly with authority on a global platform (most recently COP26 in Glasgow) about regeneration initiatives in the Built Environment. He has clear words of warning for brands lacking authenticity in their green motivations; ‘Be clear and accountable about your claims and intentions.”

Successful, memorable brands are built on differentiation and real, stand-out, authentic passion. Surely this presents an unmissable opportunity to stand up and be counted rather than tick a ‘sustainable’ box. It goes without saying that your customers, future workforce and wider stakeholders have quite quickly become experts at sniffing out authenticity and will expect full disclosure on your brand’s motivations.

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