The next frontier of sustainability is regeneration — building brands that actively restore and renew a system. And that’s as true for our systems that continue to allow racial injustice as for our environmental ecosystems.
As a young person working every day with brands who are taking on serious social and environmental issues, the events of this past year have left me feeling overwhelmed and reflective. The outrage and protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on people of color helped push the issue of racism in the US to the forefront of the global conversation. No longer is it enough for brands to support racial equality with gestures, words, or black squares on social media. People expect brands to be actively anti-racist — and this is especially true of the younger generation.
In the midst of last year’s turmoil, BBMG and GlobeScan asked 27,000 people globally to share their experiences of the moment we’re in and their desires for the future they want. The most profound headline from the study, Radically Better Future, was that 60 percent of people under age 30 globally say that in building the post-pandemic recovery, the priority should be on “restructuring our economy so it deals better with challenges like inequality and climate change” — rather than just “getting our economy back to normal as soon as possible,” compared to 53 percent of respondents over age 30. The next generation is ready for structural change, and racial justice is a key element of that.
I believe in a radical restructuring over a return to normal — though the definition of “normal” is varied and problematic in and of itself, especially in the United States.
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“Normal” tends to uphold the norms and comforts of white America, while deprioritizing or leaving out BIPOC voices and needs. As a daughter of Chinese immigrants, I have been directly and indirectly affected by unjust systems of oppression for immigrants, Indigenous and Black people in this country. Many systems — from education, to the economy, to healthcare — have failed us. I don’t know if I see a ‘normal America’ that I would like to return to.
Rewriting the norms of business
This time of overwhelm and reflection presents an important opportunity for businesses and brands — an opportunity to do more than they’ve been doing in service of who they're impacting. Like never before, we’re seeing brands asking how their products and their story are being received by diverse communities, and how they are impacting their everyday lives.
Our study reinforced that young people are looking for bold leadership from brands to meet the challenges facing humanity. They will support brands — or reject them — based on whether and how they take action. Nearly one-third of people under 30 strongly believe that companies and their brands are an essential part of the solution; and 44 percent strongly agree that they try to support companies and brands whose purpose is to make a positive difference in society through their products, services and operations.
"Brands and corporations have a moral responsibility to act in the times that we are in now — especially considering their role in capitalism and how that impacts injustices in our society.” — Gigi, 30, Los Angeles, CA
“I think it's important that brands make public statements about how they feel about the things that are going on, whether that's with racial injustice or equity issues or just with the pandemic. I think it's important that they are hiring people that represent the people that use their brand — whether that's people of color, women, people of different sexual orientations — so that people are seeing people that look like them using these brands and working at these brands.” — Jakerya, 23, Baltimore, MD
“It’s got to start with companies designing things, so that we can live comfortably and live responsibly at the same time.” — Jonathan, 23, New York, NY
We also learned that one in five young people in the US have protested publicly at events and rallies in the past year. And Gen Zers in the US are nearly twice as likely as Boomers to strongly support organizing boycotts against companies they think are irresponsible. They are raising their voices to pressure our institutions to take urgent action.
In a time of shifting paradigms, not just shifting preferences, how can brands best meet this moment?
How to build a regenerative brand
As many in the Sustainable Brands™ community have begun to recognize, building a “sustainable brand” means broadening the definition of “sustainable.” The next frontier of sustainability is regeneration — building brands that actively restore and renew a system. And that’s as true for our systems that continue to allow racial injustice as for our environmental ecosystems.
Regenerative brands use what they’re best at to fix problems beyond their own business, consumers and shareholders. They are designed for leadership in the world we live in and for the future we want. Regenerative Brands don’t wait to take the lead on issues that can’t wait.
To be a regenerative brand, a brand must cultivate three attributes: It must be Aware, Additive and Alive.
When brands make pronouncements or platitudes that aren’t true to their values, young people can see right through it. They see that they’re not really listening to the cultural conversation. So, being an Aware brand starts with being able to sit in the discomfort of not knowing the answer, or doing things differently than what’s been done before.
Regenerative brands listen with intention to what consumers are saying, to what the folks working within your company are saying. Through active listening to what people want, what the world needs, and what your brand can uniquely offer, ideas for new products, services and experiences that deliver meaningful connection, brand loyalty and indispensable value in people’s lives can be revealed.
One Aware brand taking action on racial justice is Ulta Beauty — which established an internal governance team advised by beauty entrepreneur, activist and actor Tracee Ellis Ross to continue holistically reviewing its diversity and inclusion progress. This internal team and external partner hold Ulta Beauty accountable to its bold commitments — such as doubling the number of Black-owned brands in its assortment by 2021, and investing $25 million to create more personal connections with LatinX, Black and POC communities.
Regenerative brands give more than they take, and recognize our fundamental connection and interdependence as part of a living ecosystem. They unite what’s meaningful for consumers with what’s material to the business, to delight their customers and transform their categories.
An Additive brand that advocates for more equitable and inclusive hiring practices is Dave’s Killer Bread. The company has pioneered the concept of second-chance employment: Approximately one-third of the more than 300 employee-partners at Dave’s bakery have a criminal background; the practice especially helps uplift Black Americans, who are disproportionately affected by a racist prison system.
Regenerative Brands create energy and momentum in culture to shape who we are and how we live. As our culture and society are being radically transformed every day, these brands adapt and evolve in creative relationship with the people and places they serve. They are space holders, platform builders and co-creators of ideas and stories designed with — and not just for — their audiences.
An Alive brand working to combat racism and elevate Black voices is Target. The retailer, which offers pro-bono consulting for BIPOC-owned small businesses, has launched a new badge that highlights Black-owned and -founded brands — such as The Honey Pot Company, BLK & Bold Coffee and SoapSox, to name a few — to foster racial equity in the marketplace.
Regenerative brands can lead the way
Regenerative brands can be part of the solution. A shift toward brands that are aware, additive and alive will encourage society to question ‘normal’ and reflect upon how we can create a more equitable, just, and anti-racist future for all — a future that embraces change, learning and unlearning, and commitments to bold action.