• Transform magazine
  • August 18, 2022

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The future of green branding

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Peter Matthews is the founder and CEO of digital brand consultancy Nucleus. He argues brands must do more than merely not damage the environment, and those who ‘greenwash’ will be caught out.

The United Nations defines sustainability as “the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources, incorporating environmental, social and economic considerations”.

A sustainable brand’s reason to exist, therefore, must go beyond not harming the environment, to creating positive environmental, economic and social value. But how many brands actually deliver on this? And can they prove it throughout their entire product lifecycle?

It’s a big responsibility and, until now, too many organisations appear to focus on just one of these dimensions, and many more make claims they can’t really justify.

According to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) the recent surge in demand for green products and services - in 2019 UK consumers spent £41 billion on ethical goods and services - may be giving rise to some businesses making misleading, vague or even false claims about the sustainability or environmental impact of their products. 

We are approaching a tipping point where greenwashing will be seen for what it is, because it causes confusion and sows discord around the best options for shifting the dial on the likes of Climate Change. Ultimately, it will damage the brands that chase short-term gain.

Organisations across the board need clarity and transparency in their branding, and ensure brand promises are kept. Those that live up to their claims have a unique opportunity to contribute to sustainability by creating the ‘next economy’.

Ultimately sustainability is becoming a key driver not just of legislation but of consumer choice.

As digital brand designers our role is to accelerate consumer adoption of the most sustainable practices as such here are our top suggestions for achieving this;

A focus on clear and compelling information that makes sustainability easy to grasp and implement. The brand propositions need to answer two specific questions; what does this product or service stand for, and why? These questions must be answered clearly and consistently for consumers to make informed and correct choices.

Shifting beyond just a ‘big idea’ by building on a vision that is supported by rigorous implementation, with clearly articulated communications, based on a compelling brand promise with product propositions that ring true; and, when put to the test, really are true. 

Ensuring sustainability becomes an implicit attribute of a product or service.  As the need for organisations to be sustainable continues to escalate, and consumers’ understanding of what makes something sustainable follows, new brand cues are emerging. If the brand creation is well thought-through from the start there will be a point at which the brand cues, such as low energy consumption or being fully recyclable, will become irrelevant and the brand itself will be sufficient.

For now the focus has to be on enabling consumers to quickly tell the green from the greenwash and every brand needs to tell their sustainability story. Those that are most convincing will be the brands that stand the test of time.

Creating a new sustainability aesthetic that is best defined by drawing on the origins of green design and its category codes that have led us to the present day.

Only a decade ago environmentally conscious brands led with a rustic, craft-based look and feel to distinguish themselves from sleek, shiny mainstream brands. The original codes acted as visual shortcuts, and used lots of green.

It is only relatively recently that green credentials have become a potential point of mainstream competitive advantage and those that are genuinely green now have the challenge of communicating their authentic brand promise against growing competition from big brands, claiming green or sustainable credentials.

We have now entered an era where wary consumers no longer rely on codes and have to dig deeper to identify whether this is a genuinely sustainable alternative, or just greenwash. 

This is both a risk for truly sustainable brands that don’t communicate well and a huge opportunity for brands that can carve out a new niche that meshes looking good and being sustainable as, eventually, this should be one and the same thing and something all brands should be striving for.