But it's no simple task. Global operations often means brands now face global economic and political disruptions, and a highly competitive market. Buying behaviours are increasingly influenced by brand values and action. And 'greenwashing' and 'green-hushing' accusations can cripple a business.
So how can brands truly amplify their sustainability efforts while still remaining competitive and commercially viable in the market? We recently asked three leading experts this very question. Here are their insights.
Watch our full webinar on global sustainability efforts here. Featuring Ryan Menezies, Freelance Sustainability Professional, Iain Patton, Director and Strategic Communications Consultant at Ethical Team PR, and Edurne Gil de San Vicente, Sustainability and Program Director at Water Alliance UAE. Chaired by Alice Weightman, CEO of Hanson Search and co-founder of The Work Crowd.
Insight #1: For a brand to have global success, its sustainability strategy needs to have global impact
Globalisation has opened a vast number of doors for businesses, big and small. But scaling a business and expanding into overseas markets comes hand-in-hand with a wider responsibility to develop sustainable operations. Not only in your domestic market and regional markets, but in all areas your supply chain touches.
Understanding the needs, wants and requirements of the regions you're operating in is key. These might be as clear cut as a country's GHG emissions reduction targets, as specific as its waste regulations, or as nuanced as ensuring workers' rights are always upheld.
"Sustainability is the pursuit of economic development, social wellbeing, and environmental protection, all with the aim of meeting our current needs, and without sacrificing the needs of future generations."
- Ryan Menezies, Freelance Sustainability Professional
True sustainability on a global scale is about looking at long-term gain, rather than short-term profit. As Iain Patton points out, what sustainability means for people in the UK is vastly different to what it means for individuals in Bangladesh. Establishing a strong presence for your brand means actively contributing to local communities and geographies in ways that are specific to that region.
Key Takeaway: Develop strong local partnerships
In a world of outsourcing and extended supply chains, Edurne Gil de San Vincente advises you pursue local, diverse partnerships for your business.
Working collaboratively with local organisations and individuals provides expertise into regional regulations and laws, a unique perspective into a country's culture, people and priorities, and will mean tailoring sustainability action for long-term impact.
Insight #2: Data already plays a vital role in sustainability - in the coming years, its value is going to escalate
Any sustainability strategy with clout will be led by data analysis and insights, answering vital questions surrounding a brand's mission, establishing goals and targets and so on. The need for valuable data mining and interpretation won't simply accelerate, it will underpin the very validity of a business' marketing and communications claims.
Incoming regulations could soon crackdown on the use of popular terms like "carbon neutral", "eco" and even "sustainable" by requiring brands to prove claims before using them in their marketing and communications.
"We have all these words like 'nature-based solutions' and 'carbon offsets' and often people use these interchangeably with sales messages. Without backing, these terms can result in your brand losing its reputation overnight."
- Iain Patton, Director and Strategic Communications Consultant at Ethical Team PR
An obvious benefit to this is to minimise the risk of businesses 'greenwashing' and ‘green-hushing', practices that can deliberately mislead the public. But Ryan Menezies says that stricter boundaries around who can use these terms and how will motivate businesses to stay in tune with regulations much more simply.
Key Takeaway: Use an experienced sustainability consultant
More and more brands are opting for sustainability consultants to lead and steer their strategies, and importantly, to keep on top of evolving regulations. For global impact, this is a no-brainer.
A well-versed consultant will use data mining and analysis to examine your current sustainability efforts, strategically advise on all areas of your business and regions, and drastically enhance how you act. They'll also work alongside your teams - from marketing and communications to operations and HR - to cover each cornerstone of your market position.
Insight #3: Risk is inevitable in any sustainability journey - the key is how you minimise and manage yours
Being a so-called "sustainable brand" requires ongoing effort and an acute awareness of where and how those efforts can be improved. According to our experts, it's a journey that comes with a level of risk. From details of your brand partnerships, to how your product is manufactured, to evolving public opinions, completely eradicating risk isn't feasible.
What is feasible is minimising and managing risk. This starts with scrutinising all aspects of your operations, particularly if you're opting to partner with other businesses. Associating with other brands naturally means their misgivings could cause you fallout, regardless of where it is on the chain.
"Partnerships need to be aligned with our own ethos. They're meant to leverage sustainability and be purpose-driven, not buy brands' way into accreditation. Being transparent is so important for stakeholders."
- Edurne Gil de San Vincente, Sustainability and Program Director at Water Alliance UAE
Ryan Menezies suggests that, contrary to many business leaders' opinions - consumers aren't looking for the "perfect" company. Instead, they're looking for progress, intention, and improvement. Acknowledging issues or mistakes made within your business' operations can often be beneficial.
Key Takeaway: Develop and maintain a risk register for all aspects of your business…
…and prioritise media risks. Public scrutiny can cripple a brand, and oftentimes, this can be a direct result of one of your partnerships or supplier businesses. Not your own.
Any company in the know will have a risk register which includes media and PR considerations, but in establishing your sustainability strategy, aim to develop a register specific to your action plan and different regions. That way, you're bringing your communications and PR reps in on the process from the start, and building in resources to be both preemptive and proactive in protecting your reputation.
In 2023, the need to build ethically conscious businesses and sustainable operations has never been so urgent, driven by hyperconscious consumers, regulations and targets, and a desire to future-proof your market position.
It may, at times, sound like an impossible task to achieve true sustainability across all your operations, regions, and still maintain a growth momentum needed to reach your commercial objectives. But as our experts say, perfectionism isn't the goal or intention.
Instead, today's society wants genuine action and transparent communication when it comes to business' sustainability efforts, and to know that they're interacting with a brand that demonstrates its care and investment into the wider world around them.