Sustainability Isn’t A Marketing Campaign

It’s not a slogan, vision, mission, or message either. 

Sustainability is what companies do, sooperating in a way that ensures that they stay in business isn’t a new idea, it’s what they’ve been doing since forever.

To stay in business, companies must always strive to meet the requirements of their markets and expectations of their stakeholders. If they’re not sustainable, they go out of business.

Those requirements and expectations change and evolve.

Last century, producing lots of pollution was sustainable because there were no regulations to impede it and no public awareness to demand that it stop. Businesses could take more from communities than they gave because there were no mechanisms to report those abuses or enable citizens to organize an opposition. Employers could be explicitly and implicated biased for the same reasons.

Companies lived up to the obligations that were established and enforced by the explicit accountability of regulation, and the implicit understanding and acceptance (or begrudging sufferance) of their stakeholders.

They were sustainable, at least those that could keep revenues running at higher levels than costs.

Now, we have greater visibility into those operational behaviors and commensurately different expectations of them. 

The premise of costs to the planet and people that were once considered “externalities” to judging business performance are now more apparent and relevant. ESG investors attach dollar signs to them and, increasingly, investors are using them to make decisions.

Biases in hiring and career advancement are no longer endured but challenged by a new generation supported by regulations and media that expose those inequities. Would-be employees use this new transparency to make employment decisions.

Consumers want to see and know more about what goes into products, where those products are made (and by whom), and how their patronage impacts communities near and far. They want to understand the health implications of ingredients that were once literally (and probably purposefully) described in incomprehensible gibberish.

And they’re making purchase decisions based thereupon.

It’s nuts to think that this new day of ours somehow calls for brands to tout “sustainability” or to engage in marketing efforts to demonstrate it, and quite cynical and manipulative of the Business Roundtable and the Davos elite to claim they’re redefining the very purpose of business.

They’re just giving us the blather that their management consultancies say we want to hear. Sustainability is the new “buy one, get one free” call to action. Instead of revealing the product and process truths that any of us can find on the Internet after some sleuthing, they promote innovation programs “looking for new ideas”, do lots of human interest storytelling, and make references to the UN’s SDGs whenever possible.

Here’s the rub: Nobody wants a sustainability marketing campaign. We want more transparency, more engagement, and much more accountability. 

Sustainability is synonymous with operations, so tell us more, be open to more change, and if something you do can’t stand up to public scrutiny, consider changing it. Don’t evangelize about saving the world because you think we care.

Don’t give us sustainability, give us better business performance and let it do the selling for you.

Keep the marketers out of it.

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About Jonathan Salem Baskin

Author, Advisor, Agitator