Sustainability, meet purpose

Lots of brands are discovering purpose as a way to differentiate themselves and build value in an era of choice, parity and disruption.

Really I should say ‘rediscovering’ because for 20 or more years it’s been incumbent on businesses to have a sustainability or CSR strategy. Governments and shareholders have demanded it, because they want to know that businesses have a future. Staff may have been told about it, but often it’s been part of inductions (soon forgotten) or an occasional message about turning off the lights or printing on both sides. Customers and consumers have been largely unaware, except at key moments when it’s touched their lives, such as the redesign of packaging or changing ingredients.

The strange thing is that we haven’t seen a linear progression from CSR, to sustainability, to purpose. Rather, sustainability and purpose have grown up largely independent of each other.

This seems daft to me. At a time when businesses are looking to reconnect with a social impact and human values, they’re ignoring the very real groundwork they’ve been putting in for decades.

Some brand managers no doubt see ‘sustainability’ as a brand dead-end, all smaller bottles and LPG vans, in a world where progressive, exciting brands are starting serious conversations about culture, politics, activism and society.

But that’s putting sustainability in far too small a box. For a bank, sustainability is making sure your customers are able to embrace the digital skills they’ll need to do business with you. For a fast-food chain, it’s about making sure your best customers don’t die young and poor. For a cosmetics brand, it might be about people buying from you out of lasting joy rather than momentary insecurity.

Thinking about true sustainability – what your business needs to survive – is an incredibly sensible way to make sure the brand’s social purpose remains relevant to what you do as well as your customers’ lives. It could be the glue you need to make sure you do purpose properly, in a way that lasts, builds value into the brand and belief in the minds of staff and customers.