Business lost control of the narrative on sustainability years ago, and needs to reassess its role, says Futerra’s Solitaire Townsend

Ethical Corporation and Futerra are cousins, born very close to the same date and for many of the same reasons. We both came into being two decades ago, at the start of a new century. Both born out of a desire to make positive change in all parts of society: civil society, government, communities and business.

I attended many of Ethical Corporation’s first events and wrote in some of its first issues. Back then, renewables were still called “alternative energy”, campaigns about biodiversity were confused for those about biological washing powder and when you talked about carbon dioxide, people would correct you and say, "don’t you mean carbon monoxide?”. In fact, at one point, we even considered renaming sustainability because nobody understood what it meant. I’m relieved those times are behind us.

Looking back on the last 20 years, one of the biggest changes I’ve witnessed is the mainstreaming of sustainability messaging, if not yet the mainstreaming of the action. Twenty years ago, gathering 500 people to think and talk about sustainability would seem like quite an achievement. Now, we’re seeing 25,000 people attending global events like COP26. We know the number one concern amongst young people worldwide is climate change, and consumer demand for sustainable brands and products is now at an all-time high. Google saw a 4,550% increase in searches for sustainable lifestyles in April 2021. When it comes to communicating sustainability, we’re operating on a different playing field now.

Arguably, it is now corporations and NGOs that are scrambling to keep up with the public conversation about sustainability. The ramifications of that change haven’t even begun to be felt yet. Our audiences are now the creators of the conversation, and they see sustainability as integrated and intersectional, particularly those who are younger. In fact, talking about “audiences” or “consumers” when it comes to sustainability is naive – because the “leadership” is coming from the public.

It's not the claims you make, it's about how you serve, how you help and how you answer

This is something that we wanted for a very, very long time (for those of us who are driven by sustainability). But many corporations are still struggling to understand that they lost control of the narrative a long time ago. That means the brand communications tactic of listing every green initiative it does just won’t cut it. Newsflash: nobody cares about your sustainability credentials; people only care about how you’re going to help them.

One of the biggest fights I've had over the last two decades is trying to get companies to understand that sustainability isn’t like other brand attributes. It is not like your price point or quality claims. In fact, the words “sustainability” and “claim” should never be in the same sentence. Because it's not the claims you make, it's about how you serve, how you help and how you answer. Traditional claim-making is the danger zone because that’s where greenwashing is born. If you’re in a “claims mindset” around sustainability, greenwash is nearly inevitable.

So, in the 2020s, what brands must ask themselves is: how can we advocate for change? How can we support change? How can we uplift change makers? By asking these questions, they will be actively fighting against the greenwash virus. Communications, at its best, should be about advocacy, honesty and helping the consumer to make better, more sustainable choices. The brands that do this well are being embraced. Whereas the brands that are still attempting to claim or take credit for what they're doing on sustainability tend to be disappointed, if not actually criticised, for greenwashing. Long may that continue.

COP26 president Alok Sharma. More than 25,000 people attended the summit. (Credit: Phil Noble/Reuters)

So, what might the next 20 years look like for business sustainability?

Corporations need to answer one of the hardest questions of all: what role can we play in encouraging more sustainable consumption? It’s a question that none of us has answered in the last 20 years because it's not really a question about consumption, it's a question about capitalism. That’s why I expect, and desperately hope, to see radical innovation in business models.

At Futerra, we are adopting a new hybrid model. Our business model is now divided into four parts:

  • The Change Agency, where we use logic and magic to guide world's most influential businesses and organisations into leading their industry to better.

  • The Solutions Union charity, where we find and create new ways to insert sustainable solutions into existing narratives and culture.

  • Futerra Makes, our innovation lab through which we develop world-changing product ideas and work with partners best placed to scale them.

  • Finally, our Futerra Learning offer raises subject literacy amongst organisations and builds capacity for the many, not just the experts. If you’re not looking at your business model, you’re not fit for the future.

I believe that brands are the architects of desire and they should be the creators of the solutions. And the way to solve, is inventiveness, imagination, experimentation, creativity, hybridising and creating new, rather than trying to engineer the old. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years bring.

Solitaire Townsend is chief solutionist and co-founder of the global change-agency Futerra, with offices in London, New York, Stockholm and Mexico City. “Ethical Entrepreneur of the Year”, member of the United Nations Sustainable Lifestyles Taskforce and a London Leader for Sustainability. She is author of The Happy Hero – How To Change Your Life By Changing The World.

Main picture credit: Ivan Marc/Shutterstock

This article is part of the Winter 2021, and anniversary issue, of The Ethical Corporation. See also:

Celebrating 20 years of Ethical Corporation

Why business journalists need to challenge the ESG orthodoxy

In 20 years, Ethical Corporation hasn’t lost its pioneering spirit

‘Ethical Corporation has been a beacon of light in a sea of CSR dross’

Slim Pickens and wooden water pipes: Tales from a U.S. sustainability consultancy

‘By 2041, I suspect most major brands of today will be unknown’

Nine business trends that will power us to a more sustainable future

Why all MBA graduates need to be part of the sustainability revolution

 Why nature is the secret, under-priced sauce of the global economy

‘As climate change takes an increasing toll, it will be a case of adapt or die’

Hope for achieving the SDGs lies in a new generation about to take over the boardroom


COP26  sustainable consumption  CO2 emissions  greenwash  sustainability communications 

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