How to Lead a Successful Sustainability Program

Marketers at P&G, Ikea, Kimberly-Clark, Siemens, and others are helping their companies improve the planet while achieving growth — here’s how they do it

By Chuck Kapelke

Adyna/Getty Images

Whether purchasing recycled paper and plastic, eliminating toxic chemicals from products, or setting goals to reduce carbon emissions, a growing number of global brands have upped their games to meet the standards of environmental watchdogs and conscious consumers, as well as the social media armies that stand behind them.

But rather than regard such "do good" efforts for the planet as added costs, savvy companies view them as essential ingredients for long-term growth, as they can feed directly into a purpose-led business strategy.

Consider Ikea: Through an integrated sustainability strategy described as "people and planet positive," the Swedish home furnishings company has a goal to be a "circular business" by 2030, and to regenerate more than it consumes while completely weaning itself off virgin fossil materials and fuels. Ikea aims to power its business with 100 percent renewable energy and acquire all of its wood from sustainable sources by 2020.

"It's easy to build the case that purpose and sustainability help create business success," says Claudia Willvonseder, former CMO and now VP at the Ikea Group. "Not only millennials, but consumers in all generations want to buy products that are produced in a way that strives not to harm the planet. It has a big impact on sales and pays out in the short-term, but also helps the mid- and long-term sustainability of the business."

Of course, developing a platform of sustainable programs requires time, resources, and patience. Many stalwart brands have learned the hard way that there are no short cuts, and the stain of "greenwashing" can be hard to remove. To help CMOs navigate their work in this area, the CMO Growth Council, developed in partnership with the ANA Masters Circle to establish a shared leadership agenda for marketing leaders, has named "society and sustainability " as one of its priority areas.

"It's all about galvanizing the industry, and marketers in particular, to step up to do good and drive growth at the same time," says Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, chair of the ANA board of directors, and chair of the Growth Council's sub-committee on sustainability and social impact. "Marketing is in a state of disruption, and people expect more from brands and companies. They expect us to do good for society and for the planet. Brands really have the opportunity and responsibility to step up and do good — and do so in a way that's good for growth."

Below, marketing leaders across different industries and other experts provide insight into how to lead a successful sustainability program.

 

Tie It to Your Brand Purpose

As a major user of forest-based products, Kimberly-Clark works with a variety of partners, including the World Wildlife Federation and Forest Stewardship Council, to ensure its products are sustainably sourced. The company also sponsors initiatives with a social impact, including Toilets Change Lives, a global program focused on donating a portion of select sales to building toilets and improving sanitation around the world.

Such initiatives are designed to call attention to social issues that are relevant to the company's products. "Sanitation is inherently linked to our business and brands," says Rishi Dhingra, who leads Kimberly-Clark's Family Care division and heads up the Toilets Change Lives program. "Our vision is to lead the world in essentials for a better life. For much of the world, a better life comes from just having access to a bathroom."

The company's various brand marketing teams have rolled out an array of creative approaches to bring the program to life, from on-package messaging about Toilets Change Lives to a virtual reality experience designed to "transport" consumers to the streets of Bangladesh. A team in India, as part of the Toilet Board Coalition, even recycled old buses into mobile toilets and health centers for women.

Consumers react after watching a VR experience created by Kimberly-Clark brand Andrex and WaterAid UK about sanitation issues in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and how access to proper sanitation can help save lives. Kimberly-Clark/Facebook

"We want to keep awareness high and keep the story fresh," Dhingra says. "You don't want your programs to be out of obligation, you want to do it in a way that is truly relevant. Any cause needs to be aligned with your company's vision and promise. With today's savvy consumers, when there's a mismatch, they know it and it doesn't help, it hurts the brand."

Experts who have been supporting sustainability efforts for decades know that issues with the environment can't be separated from human and social issues, points out KoAnn Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Brands, a global organization that helps businesses drive innovation and effect change by addressing social and environmental challenges. "They're intertwined. It's not about saving the planet, it's about saving humanity. Your social initiatives are connected to your environmental initiatives."

Key Takeaway: Integrating sustainability work directly into a brand helps ensure consistency and authenticity. "Too many brands are still thinking along the lines of cause marketing," Skrzyniarz says. "The way it's been treated has been as a hand wave over to the left, like, 'Don't look at what I'm doing here, but look at the good stuff we're doing over there.' Start integrating cause into the core purpose of a brand, and execute as a brand strategy, not as a philanthropic strategy."

 

Find Your Partners — and Activate Your Suppliers

As part of its global sustainability goals, cereal and snacks manufacturer the Kellogg Co. has laid out ambitious goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2050 and to work toward 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by the end of 2025. In addition, the company is focused on helping the farmers who grow its ingredients to implement practices that can improve yields while reducing the use of natural resources. Kellogg supports more than 40 programs that have helped 300,000 farmers use climate-smart farming practices.

"We're helping improve the livelihoods of farming families and communities who grow our ingredients by supporting livelihoods for a half-million farmers, including smallholders and women," says Kris Bahner, SVP of global corporate affairs at Kellogg.

Kellogg works with a wide range of external partners, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the Nature Conservancy, TechnoServe, and the World Wildlife Fund, to ensure that its sustainability initiatives are on the right track. The company even includes these partners in its marketing efforts. For example, Kellogg's "Social K" blog shares stories about the company's work around sustainability and social impact initiatives, and articles are frequently written by Kellogg leaders and employees as well as external partners.

"Because it is part of the global business strategy, the work is prioritized throughout the organization," Bahner says. "Build supply-chain relationships and implement plans that will deliver continuous improvements toward helping to achieve your sustainability goals. No one company can do this alone. Reach out to industry partners to solicit feedback about your plans and approach."

Key Takeaway: Partnerships and alliances with NGOs, suppliers, government agencies, and other companies are crucial for setting, and achieving, sustainability goals. "These are system-shift problems that have to be tackled with others," Skrzyniarz says. "Look at all your operations and make sure you're putting more back into the world than you're taking out. You can't promise to deliver white teeth, but then deliver a bunch of toxins in your product at the same time that make someone less healthy. We need to eliminate the trade‑offs."

 

Get Senior-Level Buy-In

The German technology company Siemens has been listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 19 consecutive years and was ranked No. 1 in its industry last year. The company has made environmental efficiency core to its business model. In addition to pledging to halve its carbon emissions by 2020, the company claims its energy-efficient products have enabled customers to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by more than 600 million metric tons.

"Siemens does not believe we need to wait for a treaty or new regulations to proactively address the causes of climate change," says Camille Johnston, SVP of corporate communications at Siemens USA. "We understand that taking action is not just prudent, it's also profitable. With today's software and technology, it's easier than ever to increase efficiency, and through our actions, we are demonstrating to other companies that it's possible to cut your carbon footprint. Yes, it takes substantial investment, but it pays off quickly."

At Siemens, sustainability is not regarded as a marketing initiative. Rather, it is supported by "a robust governance structure with specific environmental and social targets," Johnston says.

The marketing and communications team helps evaluate the company's progress; they know, for example, how many of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals their efforts are supporting (11 out of 17). "Once we identify and measure our contribution in identified areas, we define strategic actions to enhance our contributions and maintain transparency, keeping both external and internal stakeholders informed," Johnston says.

Getting the buy-in of senior leaders is essential for success in any sustainability effort, but marketing leaders may encounter skepticism and resistance, particularly if it means increased costs. The key, experts say, is to build a strong business case by demonstrating the potential upsides for the business, including positive brand value, reduced costs, and improved efficiency.

"You really need to have a long-term commitment from your C-suite," says Jay Wilson, senior director and analyst at Gartner. "This isn't a seasonal effort or a one-time campaign. This needs to be something that is led from the CEO level down, has to be something they really believe in, versus just a marketing-driven initiative. Marketing can bring it to life, but they shouldn't necessarily own it. It needs to be owned at the C-level and come to life throughout the organization, from HR to sales and service to the supply chain."

At P&G, CEO David Taylor has established a citizenship board that oversees five priority areas for the company: environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion, gender equality, community impact, and ethics and corporate responsibility. "He has designated senior leaders, including line leadership, to lead these efforts, because then it becomes more embedded in the business," Pritchard says. "CMOs need to step up and make this a business strategy. Define the areas that make a difference for your company and drive growth. Organize for it, put line leadership in charge of it, set specific goals, take concrete and substantive action, and measure your progress. That makes a difference."

Key Takeaway: Be the voice of the consumer — and the responsible investor — and build a data-driven business case to convince company leaders that sustainability is essential to strategy. "Twenty-five percent of institutional investors are using ESG [environmental, social, governance] criteria to evaluate company performance," says Cynthia Figge, CEO and co-founder of CSRHub, an aggregator of sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) data for more than 17,000 companies. "I think we'll see that hit 50 percent in the next few years. The demand for performance is going to be ratcheted up, and marketers are going to be very involved in managing perception and performance."

 

Energize the Internal Culture

Many companies have ramped up their sustainability efforts to appeal not just to consumers but to potential employees. "If a brand has purpose around environmentalism or sustainability, employees become more engaged and satisfied with their employer, and that's a big benefit," Gartner's Wilson says.

Marketers can play an important role in activating the employee base to get involved in a company's sustainability work. At Panasonic North America, for example, the marketing team regularly shares stories to showcase the company's social and sustainability initiatives, including the company's effort to donate 100,000 solar lanterns to communities around the world. Panasonic's culture encourages people to get involved: "contribution to society" was one of the company's founding values, and every employee gets 40 hours off every year to volunteer.

In 2018, Panasonic's centennial, the company met its goal to donate 100,000 solar lanterns to communities without electricity, and launched a new effort, the Off-grid Solutions Project, which will help supply electricity and solar storage units to communities without access to a country's power grid. Channel Panasonic — Official/YouTube

"We've been very active in partnering with our HR team to activate the employee piece," says Lauren Sallata, CMO at Panasonic of North America. "Part of the value is measured in terms of employee satisfaction, people wanting to work for a company that's mission-driven. It's not necessarily a return on dollars, but what does it mean for employees who work there, and how does it create a culture and a place where people want to be every day?"

Key Takeaway: Leverage communications to make sure all company employees are aware of sustainability goals, and use surveys to track progress. It's also important to highlight the efforts of senior leaders. Panasonic, for example, makes sure that employees "see senior leaders modeling the behavior and participating," Sallata says.

 

Share Your Successes Honestly

Once a sustainability program is in place, marketers get to do what they do best by sharing their work. Every channel represents an opportunity to get the word out.

Furniture maker Herman Miller uses social media to promote its initiatives, including its participation in the NextWave project, an alliance of companies working to establish new supply chains for ocean-bound plastics.

"We try to do right by the environment and the communities we touch, and when we figure out a good way to do so, we want to share it so that we can help set an example," says Marc Singer, senior manager of corporate marketing at Herman Miller. "Our followers really like to see where we're making a difference in the world, and those posts always perform really well. Our goal is to make sure everyone at Herman Miller is aware of stories like these, so we also make sure we're writing up case studies on key projects so that everyone from our office worker to our salespeople to our dealer network all have the means to talk about the ways we're trying to create a better world."

Ikea, Herman Miller, and a number of other brands are collaborating as part of an effort to reuse post-consumer plastic waste in more renewable ways. Experts say authentic efforts like the NextWave project resonate with consumers and contribute to meaningful change for the planet while helping companies deliver on their bottom lines. Lonely Whale/YouTube

However, experts warn that brands should not try to oversell their accomplishments. "Do not try to make a green initiative sound larger than it really is," says Todd Larsen, executive co-director for consumer and corporate engagement at Green America, a not-for-profit environmental organization. "People are becoming more aware of greenwashing, and investors are more aware … If you're accurate and transparent with consumers and tell them the reality of your green practices — 'We're looking to green our brands; here's how far we've made it; here are our plans for the future' — that's more compelling than overstating or misleading their impacts."

Key Takeaway: Don't limit communications around sustainability to an annual report buried somewhere on your website. Work with NGO partners and be honest about accomplishments to avoid the greenwash label and gain the benefits of your good work. "We try to lead with transparency, and make sure our business practices align with the values and purpose of our company," Singer says. "Ensure you're transparent about the journey your company takes to achieve its CSR goals. When consumers can see the process, it increases trust in and advocacy for your brand."

 


 

GUIDE

Valuable Resources

The ANA is involved with an array of social and environmental initiatives, including #BrandsForGood, launched with Sustainable Brands to help brands realize their full potential. "If you join these efforts, you can be part of a coalition," P&G's Marc Pritchard says. "If all these brands were doing something, it would make a big difference. This isn't going to get done with any one company. It's going to get done with each company doing individual efforts, and then coming together to make a bigger difference."

Here are several resources that can help brands move toward a more sustainable future:

  • ANA Center for Brand Purpose: Backed by the ANA Masters Circle and Global CMO Growth Council, the center offers interviews with marketing leaders, case studies, a podcast, videos, and testimonials on purposeful marketing. A one-day conference for ANA members is scheduled for May 21 in New York City.
  • #BrandsForGood: Focused on developing toolkits, measurement methodologies, and other resources, this initiative, run by Sustainable Brands, brings together a coalition of brands committed to delivering more sustainable solutions and helping consumers see themselves as part of the solution.
  • CDP: Formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project, the CDP is a not-for-profit charity that "runs a global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities, states, and regions to manage their environmental impacts." CDP claims to have the most comprehensive collection of self-reported environmental data in the world.
  • CSRHub: This organization brings together nearly 600 sources of information to develop sustainability ratings for thousands of companies. Among the data points considered: how effective businesses are at presenting their progress. "Our research shows a high correlation between brand strength and different areas of sustainability — and it has increased over time," says Cynthia Figge, CEO and founder of CSRHub. "The impact that sustainability or CSR programs have on a brand is really critical."
  • Ecolabel Index: With a mission to "make it easier to make green choices," this global directory of ecolabels tracks 463 ecolabels in 199 countries across 25 industry sectors.
  • S&P Dow Jones Sustainability Indices: Investors are increasingly looking at companies' ESG (environmental, social, governance) performance as a way to measure companies. The S&P Dow Jones Sustainability Indices, for example, relies on RobecoSAM's annual Corporate Sustainability Assessment, which collects and analyzes 600 to 1,000 different data points per company. The results are used to rank thousands of companies, all with an eye toward guiding investors' decisions.
  • Sustainability Accounting Standards Board: SASB's mission is to help businesses around the world identify, manage, and report on the sustainability topics that matter most to their investors.
    — C.K.

 


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