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Research shows that companies that succeed in uncertain times are those attuned to stakeholder needs and that focus on what matters most; those that go into survival mode and pull back from investing in their business flounder in a
Business leaders today face unprecedented pressures: volatile markets, the Great
Resignation, political turmoil, war, social-justice strife and environmental
disasters. Add in rising material costs and stretched supply chains and you have
You might be thinking now is not the
to take on the lofty goals that come with organizational purpose and the
integration of environmental and social strategies into your business, let alone
all the change it would bring with it.
Those very initiatives and your own purpose-driven leadership have the potential
to solve your most pressing business challenges.
shows consumers not only expect this
from you, they’ve never been more eager to prove it: 96 percent of consumers say
buying from purpose-led brands is important despite soaring inflation rates and
a looming recession — and 50 percent are willing to pay
for these products.
“What we have seen emerge both in the data and in culture convinces us that now
is not the time to shrink back on sustainability and ESG criteria,” says
sustainability practitioner, speaker and author Philippa
Cross. “It’s time to double down with
focus and clarity.”
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Analysis of previous economic downturns
shows companies that succeed in uncertain times are those attuned to stakeholder
needs and that focus on what matters most — and those that go into survival mode
and pull back from investing in their business flounder in a recession.
“Companies that double down on progressive, transformational strategies — and
that use their material issues to map both risks and opportunities — do more
than survive. They thrive,” Cross says.
Here’s five ideas for how to lean into sustainability initiatives, with purpose,
and recession-proof your brand:
Conscious consumerism is how ordinary people impact change. And the majority
of US consumers are eager to change their own behaviors in order to impact
the world for the better — they just want brands to make it easier for them
Think: Hellman’s “Make Taste, Not Waste”
which aims to decrease food waste by showing people how mayo can turn
leftover food into a tasty flavor adventure. It’s a move that exemplifies how
a brand can help consumers be more sustainable, well beyond the point of
“If we do our job well — if we inspire consumers, show them the possibility
of food, excite them about what food can be — then the downstream effect
will help us achieve our UN Sustainable Goal of trying to reduce food waste
by half by 2030,” says Benjamin
Crook, North American
VP/GM of Dressings + Condiments at Unilever.
As trust in government institutions slips, citizens increasingly want
brands to be
— focused not merely on profit but on taking stands that align with their
beliefs. And they’re influencing social issues by engaging with brands they
love (or don’t) and work for. Find ways to prove your brand’s purpose
through powerful actions, which then become real stories for consumers that
lead to authentic word of mouth and social sharing.
Think: Dick’s Sporting Goods — a brand with a purpose to empower people
to do their best. In the days following a school mass shooting in 2018, Ed Stack — Dick’s Sporting Goods’ CEO and biggest shareholder — took bold
He pulled a certain type of semiautomatic rifle off the shelves of the
850-store chain and ended the sale of firearms to people under 21. While
Dick’s would lose an estimated $250 million in sales, ultimately,
profitability improved in subsequent quarters. This
action inspired Walmart, L.L. Bean
and Kroger to announce similar gun-sale restrictions; and today, it
serves as a model for business leaders working to balance corporate
interests with personal values.
Investors don’t simply want your ESG analysis rating; they want evidence
your brand is activating your ESG initiatives and holistically integrating
them into your brand’s story, products, experience, and even your workforce
culture. Measure your climate impact and have a strategy for reducing
emissions. Move beyond disclosure and compliance and turn this effort into
stories that will resonate with consumers. If your ESG story is stopping at
your report, you’re missing opportunities.
Think: IKEA and its mission to both democratize design and create a
positive impact on people and the planet. This involves not only a corporate
strategy centered on better materials, production and working practices but
also a critical focus on products to help people live more sustainably. Its
message is communicated through all consumer touchpoints — from the
experiences in-store and online to the very essence of its business:
flat-packed furniture production.
IKEA’s strategy is not stuck in an ESG
report; it’s an experience for its
consumers. And it has earned the company a top-tier ranking from
a score in the 90th percentile out of over 30,000 companies by ESG rating
company CSR Hub, and a top spot in GlobeScan/SustainAbility’s 2022
Employee expectations have changed. So, too, should the way brands think and
act. People want to work for companies that are doing what they say they
will do. Our data show 73 percent
of consumers say that working for a company that aligns with their values
so, win inside your organization to win out in the marketplace.
Think: Tony’s Chocolonely is an impact
brand that makes chocolate, founded by
three Dutch journalists who discovered that the world’s largest chocolate
manufacturers bought cocoa from plantations that used child labor and modern
slavery practices. Its mission? To eradicate forced labor in the cocoa
Tony’s company culture is a magnet for the type of employees it wants to
“We benefit from the brand image we have out there and it brings to us the
type of talent we have coming in,” say Aidaly Sosa, head of US
marketing for Tony’s. “Everyone has a shared passion for social justice,
with a common mindset to be empathetic toward others — to be open, to
listen. That’s so wired within the company.”
Climate disclosure requires that businesses measure their greenhouse gas
footprint against a common framework. This climate data can be proof of your
commitments — informing impactful stories that reward action. Mine data for
insights that enhance credibility; find creative ways to infuse them into
the stories you’re telling — then add fresh perspectives on what’s possible
to maximize your brand’s impact and engage stakeholders to work together
toward common goals.
Think: Grove Collaborative — a Certified B Corp
with a mission to turn home-cleaning products into a force for good. The
brand is built around constantly creating and curating high-performance,
planet-first products to an ever-increasing community of well-intentioned
“Our purpose is really the engine behind our growth — allowing us to further
differentiate ourselves as a mission-driven marketplace and family of brands
in an increasingly crowded market,” says Danielle
Jezienicki, Senior Director of
Sustainability at Grove Collaborative. “The integrity of our
mission has attracted both a customer base
who is aligned with our values and top
furthering our ability to grow.”
Purpose-led sustainability strategies are shaping the brands of the future as
they build resilience, minimize risks and identify opportunities — because if
purpose is why a brand matters, then sustainability is how it gets there. And
today, it requires commitment to both and action to prove it.
Published Apr 3, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Jen Mazi is a sustainability writer and content director at Barkley — a marketing consultancy and Certified B. Corporation™ that believes all brands can be a force for good in the world.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.