Sustainability under wraps?

Why are certain companies keeping quiet about their ground-breaking sustainable achievements? David Burrows investigates

Every manufacturing plant Toyota runs in Europe is zero waste-to-landfill – and that’s been the case for well over a decade. In fact, since 2018 the sites have also been ‘zero waste-to-incineration’. Look for this achievement in the press and you’ll find that, much like the company’s non-recyclable waste, there is almost nothing out there. Why would a business keep shtum about its sustainability, especially when others are so keen to shout about theirs (and profit from it)? 

Toyota isn’t the only brand keeping quiet: there are Portuguese wineries silently shifting from conventional to organic production and clothing companies apparently outdoing the likes of sustainable fashion pin-up Patagonia. This ‘secret sustainability’, as The Guardian recently called it, could be explained by companies not wanting to give away a competitive advantage. However, it could be holding up progress. If a car manufacturer can make zero waste commercially viable, or a wine producer can cut its chemical applications and boost harvests by 18%, surely others would want to take a closer look? There could be many more private innovations going on that are even more revolutionary, suggests Libby Peake, senior policy advisor at think tank Green Alliance. “It’s a shame not to share them.”

Have companies gone shy on sustainability – and what are the reasons for their reticence? 

 

A crowded conversation

There is little to suggest that businesses have reined in their communications; in fact, the volume of press releases and social media activity has gone up. Editors are keener than ever to consider pitches on everything from carbon labelling and chemical pollution to ‘purpose’ and packaging. David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have helped: the public has taken note of the climate emergency and plastic pollution, and brands are falling over themselves to give them (and the press) what they want. Those who shout loudest tend to be heard. 

Communications agencies are seeing an uptick in clients who want to talk about plastic – a subject the media is particularly receptive to. This frustrates some. “Just because it has the greatest awareness among consumers, doesn’t mean that it is the single most important issue,” says Greenhouse PR founder Anna Guyer. “Some publications have a long way to go when it comes to realising that plastic waste isn’t the only pressing climate change issue.”

“Companies that do step into the spotlight create expectations – and consumers are more demanding than ever”

Still, consider what a ‘plastic-free’ commitment has done for Iceland’s standing as a ‘sustainable supermarket’ and it’s easy to see why there is a temptation to say something rather than nothing. The rollout of ‘plastic policies’, as well as ‘net zero’ commitments, has come thick and fast – but some of these are not worth the recycled paper they are written on (Shell and BP’s recent offsetting plans, or the companies that announced packaging pledges 18 months ago but have failed to report on progress as promised). 

 

Filtering the greenwash

Maybe the issue is quantity over quality? Are we facing a world where the innovation that has seen one anonymous factory produce a pair of jeans using a single litre of water – as opposed to the 346 litres required for a pair of Levis – flies under the radar, while swapping from plastic wrap to cardboard wins drinks companies headlines? “The issue is that we are too quick to communicate half-baked initiatives, not that we’re hiding the gems,” explains Ben Hayman, managing partner at brand purpose agency Given London. 

Sorting the gems from the greenwash isn’t easy, but consumers are wary of some of the sustainability stories being told. Only 34% of consumers trust most of the brands they use, according to Edelman’s global survey of 16,000 people last year. Indeed, trust in big corporations has been eroded after their years of hiding supply chain impacts and explaining away resulting scandals. But some feel that companies are more transparent than they have ever been. “The world has changed,” says Dexter Galvin, director of corporations and supply chains at the Carbon Disclosure Project. “Companies are disclosing their impacts in a way I’ve never seen before.”

Others are also witnessing improvements. Jo Raven is engagement manager at Fairr, a global network of investors focused on the risks and opportunities caused by intensive livestock production. “We’ve seen a huge change in the past 18 months. There is real recognition of the environmental impacts of food, in particular protein. Disclosure is improving from a livestock sector not traditionally under pressure from investors.” There is also focus on divestment from fossil fuels, plus renewed interest in deforestation. 

 

Inconvenient truths

But as pressure increases, companies are forced to act. The challenge then is ensuring good practice isn’t overstated. Greenwashing is sometimes easy to spot, but it is more often open to debate. “Greenwashing is anything people choose it to be,” explains Professor Steve Evans, director of research at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Industrial Sustainability. “It can be any unintended consequence.” For brands, this becomes a bit like trying to whack moles: suppress one environmental impact and you expose another. “One sustainable ‘solution’ may contradict another,” explains Katrina Russell, project director at cultural insight agency Sign Salad. 

Take the restaurant brand that wants to switch to free-range eggs, supporting higher welfare but increasing the carbon footprint of each egg, or the clothing company that moves its manufacturing to the UK, resulting in factories being closed down on the other side of the world. These are what Nick Dormon, founder of brand and design consultancy Echo, refers to as “inconvenient truths”, and they are just some of a number of challenges facing those who are trying to communicate sustainable business practice. If brands haven’t found a good way to communicate their story, they tend to keep quiet.

“Quietness and discretion are now being used to signal luxury and confidence to consumers.”

Companies that do step into the spotlight also create expectations – and consumers are more demanding than ever. Shout about the 20% recycled plastic used in a takeaway box and the first question people ask is: why isn’t it 100%? Getting to 20% can be “quite an achievement”, says Dormon, but the investment, expertise, supply chain alterations and time needed to hit 100% isn’t easy to communicate to consumers looking for a quick fix. 

 

The long game

Change doesn’t happen overnight, which leaves companies with a conundrum: do they make adjustments and keep their failures and successes out of the public eye, or do they bring everyone along for the ride? There are pros and cons to both approaches. Hiding sustainability creates “credible differentiation” from greenwashing, notes Sign Salad’s Russell, but brands don’t need to shout to be heard. Quietness and discretion are now being used to signal luxury and confidence to consumers. These “authentic experimenters” present themselves as honest but imperfect, says Russell. “It’s a ‘we’re working on it, but we’re not there yet’ story, rather than a finished, polished declaration of success.”

Whether sustainable products can be luxurious is a moot point. One of the reasons those vineyards keep their organic accreditation to themselves is because “we’ve managed to educate customers that organic wine is either terrible or expensive”, says Professor Evans. “They don’t feel that it’s their job to ‘untrain’ people.” The worry is that if such stories go untold, others won’t see the benefits that sustainable approaches can bring. These companies are also missing out on taking a leadership position, not to mention additional profits (“there’s money to be made”, says Dormon, citing the fact that Unilever’s sustainable living brands are growing 69% faster than the rest of its business). 

Sustainability is a long game and, according to Professor Evans, “we aren’t good at rewarding momentum building”. Should critics of businesses trying to move in the right direction back off? There is certainly a balance to be struck between praising progress and pushing performance: get it wrong and companies clam up; get it right and improvements stretch industry-wide. This can have huge benefits. “The best manufacturers have improved energy efficiency by 50% over 10 years, but the rest only achieved 10 to 15%,” says Green Alliance’s Peake. “Sharing best practice could go some way to raising the bar across the board.”  

David Burrows is a freelance journalist

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