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How Sustainable is Your Food or Beverage Brand, Really?

An article we published recently noted that food and beverage brands often tout their sustainability and package their products in “recyclable” materials. In the real world, though, most food and beverage packaging is not actually recyclable in any practical sense. And even if it were, we’ve put the burden of dealing with all of this plastic and paperboard and film on the consumer.

We’ve made it so easy for people to buy our products. Shouldn’t we also make it easy for them to dispose of the stuff our products are wrapped or boxed or bottled in?

That article shared five practical steps brand leaders can take to reduce their environmental footprint, focusing on their packaging.

But of course, there’s much more to sustainability than packaging.

So how can brands create an authentic sustainability platform without greenwashing or faking it? How can they make meaningful, systemic changes, and how do they present that position to their audience?

Consumers Demand Sustainability

First, understand that consumers are driving corporate interest in sustainable practices. Take a look at the trends:

More than 9 million people globally belong to the Freecycle Network, which aims to trade and reuse goods instead of purchasing.

Peer-to-peer marketplaces like eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace allow consumers to buy and sell used items directly from one another.

Sites like Poshmark, Thred Up, and Rent the Runway allow fashionistas to buy or rent pre-worn clothing, some of it from high-end labels.

As a marketer, you also know that consumers are incredibly fickle. And sometimes irrational. They love the idea of buying less and reusing more, but they’re still buying a ton of stuff. They expect environmental responsibility even as they buy single-serve products with excessive packaging just because they’re more convenient. They want brands to be do-gooders, but they balk at paying a premium for that position.

So what is a mission-driven, better-for-you food or beverage brand to do?

4 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Food & Beverage Brand

Do It Because It’s Right

We advise our food and beverage clients to move in a sustainable direction not because it’s trendy or because it builds their cred on social media — but because it’s the right thing to do. Every brand is different, and that means they have different needs and bring different strengths to a sustainability story.

For every “environmental hero” brand — Patagonia, Lush Cosmetics, and Seventh Generation are brands anchored in environmental activism — there are thousands more that are starting to work sustainability into their platform. This shift in focus risks greenwashing, and unless you do it in a way that’s authentic and logical for your brand, consumers will sniff that out in a hot minute.

4 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable Brand

So how can brands add an environmental position in a legit way?

1) Understand where you are today. Establish an internal working group tasked with defining your brand’s environmental footprint across business units: ingredient sourcing, production, packaging, distribution, retail, end-of-life, all of it. Examine not just environmental issues but also human ones: wages, safety, etc. Then begin to tackle reducing waste and improving practices wherever you can.

2) Anchor environmental commitment in your capital-B Brand. We define Brand as the promises you make and the way you keep them. Your organization must decide on your brand promise and the role that sustainability plays in it. Some brands lead with sustainability and don’t have other values; others focus on other issues like equality or health and then figure out how to bolt sustainability onto that.

To make your environmental position externally legitimate and internally “sticky” it must flow logically from your brand promise. It doesn’t have to be your only mission, but it shouldn’t be one of many missions. Don’t try to be a better-for-you, organic, shade-grown, equality-minded, sugar-free, donate-a-product-for-every-one-purchased, environmental warrior brand; consumers will struggle to understand an overly complex brand position.

We call this concept being a “citizen brand” — if your brand exists as a citizen of the world, then it has to behave admirably in all respects. Your environmentalism doesn’t have to be the lead horse, but it’s part of your value system to do the right thing.

3) Infuse sustainability throughout your operations. When this effort is part of the brand’s core belief system, it informs every aspect of your business. And you recruit, train, promote, and fire employees based on those values. That’s how you make sustainability matter deeply to the entire organization.

Not every brand has the discipline to do what Patagonia did – to review every single business activity in every single unit so that every product has a minimal impact on the environment. But if your brand is committed to sustainability, you should behave accordingly in all aspects of the business, not just when consumers are watching.

One way to do this is to apply for B Corp status. Overseen by the nonprofit B Lab, the B Corp movement aims to change the global economic system to the benefit of people and planet. (We’ve gone through this process ourselves to achieve B Corp certification.) The standards are rigorous, and there are free tools companies can use to assess their impact. This alone is a helpful exercise.

4) Craft your sustainability story internally and externally. When a plan to reduce your environmental footprint is baked into your mission, it should become easy to authentically communicate that to your employees and fans.

Begin with internal messaging: encourage people to measure twice and cut once, to think before they act, to choose suppliers carefully, to decide whether we need an office copier. Training and nurturing the value across the organization will ground every decision in your brand values. That will still have a huge impact even if you can’t radically change your packaging tomorrow.

Then you start the dialog with consumers so they know you have a position, you recognize it’s a challenge, and you’re taking steps to make it better.

At the end of the day, brands have to become more sustainability-minded. Humanity is up against looming deadlines in terms of climate change and natural resource depletion. We can’t afford to delay.

Ready to start on the sustainability path, or move farther along? We’re here to help.

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Chief Sales & Marketing Officer
For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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