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The mad scramble to make brands more sustainable is in full swing. And while companies are right to tackle this issue, the truth is that quite a few of them are still getting it wrong. That’s because there are still a few glaring misconceptions about the movement in general; not only what it means to be sustainable, but also how to achieve true sustainability.
Throughout my career, sustainability has been a common thread. During that time, I’ve learned quite a bit about how brands perceive the notion of sustainability and how easily they can miss the mark. So, in the interest of demystifying the whole affair, I’d like to share five facts I’ve learned about this movement that will hopefully bring it into clearer focus.
We’ve gotten better at measuring sustainability
Almost all brands today are trying to solve the sustainability problem. The byproduct of this is that we are collectively creating the capacity to measure our success through a variety of channels. This is precisely what the movement has lacked thus far: a way for us to track our progress and get a clearer picture of the overall impact our efforts are having.
For most of our history, waste was invisible. If you threw something away, it simply disappeared from your reality. Today, we are tracking the movement of disposed materials and resources down to a subatomic scale. Take the movement of plastic in the world. We are seeing plastic in fish on a molecular level. We are building a global capacity to track the world’s energy and material flow and creating metrics that will allow brands to make better decisions and build reasonable, actionable sustainability strategies. That will allow brands to measure and track the impact they have when they make changes for the better. It will also mean that if we fail to improve that will also be measured.
Real change takes baby steps, not leaps
A new, splashy product or service may make a few headlines, but true sustainability is achieved through a series of incremental improvements. For example, by using products that are recyclable or reusable, we can drastically reduce the amount of waste shows create.
Individually these products make a difference, but within the context of a global provider that may use them thousands of times in a year, they can do a tremendous amount of good. The target here is to eliminate the need for “disposable” products altogether, because the truth is, they are not actually being disposed of—at least in the sense that most of them will sit in a landfill for years. The whole notion of single usage is being challenged by people all over the planet, and brands like Unilever, Nestlé and Coca-Cola are starting to explore real, impactful solutions. In fact, Canada has just announced a national ban on all single-use plastics by 2021.
You can’t always do it alone
The biggest challenge is that we’re not just facing a single problem, we’re facing an ecosystem of problems. In order to face a complex range of issues, we need help. To begin with, our customers are going to have to play a big role. The good news is that right now, there are a thousand other players that are looking at these opportunities and creating solutions as well.
The whole world is moving this way, and we are starting to see collaborations between large global brands that are mutually committed to global transformation of their industries. We can learn a lot from these sorts of partnerships, especially when all the parties involved have aligned their values. When a client on the scale of McDonald’s says they’re going to be sustainable, the scale of transformation that represents globally is off the charts. Now imagine every vendor they partner with following suit.
The challenge for those of us in the events industry is that some of our individual shows or clients don’t always have the capacity to invest in solving this problem. The responsibility then falls on the marketers to help them and take the work out of their hands. As their valued partner, we have to get to the point where all of our solutions are sustainable.
Sustainability is not a destination; it’s a new reality
The key for brands seeking true sustainability is to accept a new design ethos that says, “This is how it’s going to be from now on.” In the events world, we want to make the audience experience bigger, brighter and better, but we also want lower costs and greater business impact. Well, we now have to account for the environmental impact of these improvements and adjust how we provide them—forever.
We’re past the point of arguing whether or not sustainability is needed. While there’s plenty of scientific evidence to support the movement, from a purely pragmatic point of view, we simply cannot continue to throw everything away. We have to change our behavior from here forward, and that’s going to take a lot of work from a lot of people: brands, audiences, consumers, governments. We will all be involved because we will all be impacted, and the work will never truly end.
Strategy begins with clarity
Most of the misconceptions about sustainability are the result of the evolution of the business world. We’ve been working so hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of technology and audience segmentation that we failed to look at the effects of our own growth or how to deal with the impact. Once the alarms started to go off, we did what brands always do: We offered a sustainable option. Now that cultural and societal pressure has forced us to be more introspective, we’re suddenly realizing that a sustainable option is not enough; we need massive change on a massive scale.
That’s why it’s not as simple as turning off the conference room lights or “greening” a link in the supply chain. It’s about tackling sustainability as a strategic function of your business. And like any strategic initiative, it’s best to start with a clear understanding of what you’re in for and what success looks like.