‘Sustainable’ Business Has Become Table Stakes — What’s Next?

Every organization was deep in 2022 planning mode, and the same question was on everyone’s mind: if sustainability has become table stakes, then what’s the next frontier? How do we differentiate ourselves in this oversaturated marketplace?

I went back to London recently after 2 whole years of being away, and while there, I happened to stumble into the same grocery store in Canary Wharf that I used to shop at before the pandemic. Aisle after aisle was chock-full of products branded as ‘eco-friendly’, and good-for-the-planet virtue signaling was ubiquitous. Putting myself in the shoes of the quintessential millennial shopper, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: do companies really mean it, or are they suddenly ‘sustainable’ because they have to be?

Elsewhere in the city and inside the boardrooms I frequented during my trip, every organization was deep in 2022 planning mode, and the same question was on everyone’s mind: if sustainability has become table stakes, then what’s the next frontier? How do we differentiate ourselves in this oversaturated marketplace?

Here are 5 lessons I distilled from the industry’s best minds.

Purpose first, sustainability second

Gone are the days when a brand went live with an isolated sustainability initiative and was applauded for it. Brand goodwill is no longer going to be driven by one-off milestones; instead, it will be earned by setting a larger purpose roadmap and communicating progress — albeit imperfect — with radical transparency, over time.

The key to success in 2022 lies in recognizing that while sustainability might have become table stakes, purpose never will. Don’t just show off your sustainability credentials, because it will never be original or complete. Instead, form your purpose first, and integrate sustainability within that to put across your unique approach. This will get customers to rally around you and help create change that matters.

Think you know your customers? Think again.

Consumer perception of sustainability has gone through a sea change in the last 12 months. Shoppers worldwide have become fatigued with greenwashing, and they are tired of empty promises. People want no-compromise sustainability, and in the eyes of many, few brands meet that bar.

Businesses, on the other hand, have just not caught up to these enlightened sentiments. Most executives are still relying on their biased moral compasses and myopic understanding of customers, hardly making decisions from true insights.

The world is changing fast, and staying ahead starts with breaking out of your echo chamber, actually being tuned in to your customers’ sentiments, and using real data to predict future preferences. The next big challenge has already presented itself — it’s your turn to identify it.

Get technical — People are looking for nuance

Thanks to persistent media attention and COP26, consumers have learned more about climate change this year than ever before. Climate finance? Check. Trade-offs of plastic vs other materials? Double-check. As people become more educated & sophisticated about environmental issues, they expect their favorite brands to put in the effort and do the same.

The solution is simple yet profound… read up! In other words, business executives have to get into the weeds of environmental science and consistently stay more informed than their most eco-activated segments. Host internal monthly debates, learn from external experts and make that technical sustainability analyst hire.

Only when you yourself are armed with knowledge, can you then demonstrate thought leadership in front of your community. At the end of the day, thought leadership = the most memorable way of portraying reality, and it’s high time that businesses start helping their customers actually make sense of the dire reality that is the climate crisis.

Don’t separate you and me, it’s us together

Too often, brands put up an unnecessary iron curtain between the way they participate in sustainability themselves versus how they want their customers to participate. The “Our detergent bottle is recyclable, and by the way, you should use less water” type of narrative is a sure-shot way of stoking detachment and disconnection from your brand mission.

Companies must go above and beyond to reduce this friction and bridge the gap, by marrying consumer action directly with their own impact creation. Break down the units of impact to the individual interaction, product or order, so that consumers know that every additional touchpoint with the brand adds a bit more good in the world and that his or her patronage of your services is creating change as a part of a larger vision too.

Consistently create opportunities to participate in your impact, and soon enough, the erosion of trust will reverse and customers will remain faithfully in your corner.

Systemic roadmaps, not incomplete initiatives

Businesses can no longer build a house of cards with fragmented actions and sporadic press releases. The need of the hour is to put in the work in the beginning and build a systemic change strategy that activates impact across every possible domain for the issue you set out to tackle.

For example, committing to reducing your plastic use by 50% is not going to mean anything, if you are also not reporting your plastic use year-on-year, providing tools to customers that help them unpack this complex issue, advocating for government policies like plastic taxes & EPR, or offsetting your footprint to finance innovators on the frontlines of tackling the problem.

Drawing from our rich experience in creating systemic change with conscious brands and impact changemakers across the world, we’ve created the rePurpose Theory of Change, a high-level mental model to help you do exactly that and take holistic action on any societal issue you endeavor to tackle. Here it is!

Going into 2022, we have to be both hopeful and strategic about the way we approach sustainability. This is the moment if any, and it’s high time we acknowledge that no single action is going to create the change we need. There is no one silver bullet solution. It’s the interlinking of different pieces that will fuel your sustainability accomplishments and you’ll be standing out and you’ll be standing tall going into a crucial year for the planet and all who inhabit it.

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