There's no faster-moving, faster-evolving sector than sustainability in the 2020s. Whether it's regulations and legislations, new pressures and demands, every corner of 'green' initiatives seems to be constantly shifting in weight and expectations.
Keeping track has never been so crucial - or so difficult.
With COP28 around the corner and ESG on every brand's priority list, we're exploring some of the biggest sustainability trends, patterns and debates. And how they could impact your brand in 2024 and beyond.
This is a newer debate in sustainability, but one we're likely to hear more of throughout COP28 and the next 12 months. "Green-hushing" is the practice of brands deliberately under-reporting or concealing ESG action to avoid scrutiny. For example, a company chooses to publicise its carbon reductions, but not where its investing or divesting funds.
Green-hushing can be a more nuanced, and therefore challenging practice to pinpoint; you don't know what you don't know. Having said that, if a brand actively advertises its long-term sustainability goals, then selectively reports progress towards those goals, it might draw negative attention.
But, it's also not black and white. There are a number of reasons why a company may not publicise its goals or progress, not least fear of reputational damage. It can also present more challenges for startups and SMEs, many of which operate on less established teams and investment, but are nonetheless committed to environmental practices.
How it could impact brands: Considering how damning green-washing accusations are, it's safe to say green-hushing may have the same effect. Regulations like the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive and the US SEC's Mandatory Climate Risk Disclosure Plan will help drive brands to adapt a more uniform approach to reporting. We could also see an increase in PR strategists and Chief Communications Officers enter the fold to manage rollout and climate reputation.
At time of writing, this debate is largely driven by the proposed EU 'Green Claims' Directive. If approved, the directive will require companies operating in the region to substantiate assertions made about the environmental impact of their products or brand. So, if a company advertises that it uses recycled materials in packaging or halved its carbon footprint, they'll need to show the receipts.
But despite the debate escalating in 2023, it's far from new. Globally, some of the biggest brands have been accused of misleading consumers about their ESG practices in recent years. Using terms like "ethical", "eco" or "environmental" is simple because they're so hard to prove or disprove; specific definitions can be open to interpretation.
So as the public has become more savvy, the demand for transparent, evidence-based claims from brands has risen. And regardless of whether this directive passes or if your company even operates in the EU, increased legislation around so-called "green claims'' is likely to increase globally in the coming years.
How it could impact brands: Unlike many regulations and legislations, the EU 'Green Claims' Directive would have an effect on any brand choosing to operate in the territory. It will reinforce the need for businesses to closely monitor their supply chain, set stringent environmentalism targets, and invest in their marketing to help uphold criteria. It could also pressure brands to establish 'greener' models to avoid fines and reputational damage.
Often referred to as "climate labelling", this practice enables brands to position their product as a green or greener choice. Green labelling has piqued interest in recent years, partly due to ongoing debates within the food and drinks industry about different produce's environmental impact.
Again, "sustainable" or "ethical" labels aren't new; we've seen fairtrade labels on packaging for years. But what is newer is a wider awareness of the climate impact of a product's lifecycle. Value-driven decision-making and lifestyles are increasingly motivating consumers to make informed choices - and green labelling has purchase power.
It's easy to look at this as relegated to the food and drinks industry, but it's not a stretch to say this could change in the near future. Banking, fashion, and travel are all sectors facing significant climate scrutiny, yet continued consumer demand. And they may see green labelling as a window of opportunity.
How it could impact brands: If the practice becomes mainstream or mandatory, we could see vast adjustments in how brands promote and market. PR and messaging will be even more crucial to the revenue structure within businesses, as will greater supply chain oversight. We may also see research departments transition from being a staple in larger organisations, to being a staple in every organisation, meeting the information demand.
We're currently in the most formative decade for climate action to date, and the sustainability practices that brands are adopting (or not) have never been so under the microscope.
It's tempting to say that it's the responsibility of governing bodies to instruct policies, and the responsibility of big corporations to implement them. But moving the needle requires action from leaders across all businesses and regions. And as we move closer to the 2030 and 2050 milestones, the market will be dominated by brands that made sustainability integral to its structure.
If your organisation is reviewing its net zero ambitions in 2024, concerned about reputational or revenue risks, or looking to achieve sustainability targets, it's time to get in touch. Our network of over 5,000 independent consultants specialise in a wide range of sustainability needs - regardless of your goals or where you are on your ESG roadmap.