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The future of sustainability

The future of sustainability

Pioneering brands can be at heart of regeneration

Neil Godber

Joint Head of Planning

Wunderman Thompson UK


Marie Stafford

European Director, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence

Wunderman Thompson UK


Sustainability as we know it has long been on the agenda, since the UN published the Brundtland Report in 1987, but its meaning is evolving for a new age.  

Whereas countries, companies, brands and people once looked to do less harm, increasingly that is no longer enough. The future of sustainability looks to regeneration: replenishing and restoring what we have lost, and building economies and communities that thrive, while allowing the planet to thrive too.

Once regarded as a nice-to-have consideration of progressive societies or a trend pursued by evangelical segments like “ploggers” (who clear litter while jogging), vegans or surfers, Wunderman Thompson research across the UK, USA, Australia and China demonstrates the new mainstream mindset and practices of sustainability.  

A snapshot shows we now know that nine out of 10 consumers are trying to live more sustainably, 79 percent find themselves thinking more about what they can do personally, and 54 percent admit that they could be doing more.

Whilst the majority of respondents believe governments should shoulder most of the responsibility for ensuring a sustainable future, brands rank in second place among our global panel. People are putting companies and brands at the very centre of the sustainability debate. As Ray Anderson, former CEO of Interface Inc, said in a speech almost 25 years ago, business “is the only institution that is large enough, and pervasive enough, and powerful enough, to really lead humankind out of this mess”.

Research shows 92 percent of consumers want sustainable business practices to be standard, they believe companies and brands have a responsibility to take care of the planet and its people, and 91 percent think businesses that pollute the environment should be fined.

By responding to this demand, the upside for brands looks clear. According to conservative estimates by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a rising sustainable economy could be worth $12 trillion and create 380 million jobs. Also, sustainability has the ability to drive preference and choice, with 83 percent saying they always pick the brand with the better record of sustainability when all else is equal, and 70 percent saying they’re willing to pay more for products and services if they protect the environment or avoid infringing on human rights.

So far, brands have responded by offering consumers greater transparency along with better information, educating people on responsibly sourced materials and ingredients. Some brands are going beyond that, reassuring people that they are reducing waste and by-products while monitoring their carbon footprint.

However, a growing consensus suggests businesses should aim beyond sustainability, towards regeneration. Instead of merely maintaining or reducing their impact, companies should be looking to restore and improve, leaving the planet and population better off for their existence.

Forward-thinking brands are now working with nature and for society, not against, seeking to connect with communities and improve lives. Economist Kate Raworth has called for a new economic model for the 21st century that is “generative”; it aims for positive impact: “The very way we do business sequesters carbon, cleans the air, pays living wages, and builds community—we’re here to make good things happen for society and for the living world.”

Here’s how businesses and brands can think in a regenerative way:

The fastest-growing brands combine a strong vision with an ecosystem of services held together and defined by the experience, so to truly make a difference, companies need to adopt a systemic approach to sustainability. Issues such as marine pollution, toxic manufacturing processes or exploitative working practices are too difficult to tackle unless multiple organisations, entities and stakeholders make changes together.

Companies often struggle to achieve efficiency in their use of materials and other resources; by collaborating with the right partners they can find creative ways of turning waste into a new resource, while also unlocking new business opportunities. At Kalundborg in Denmark, nine businesses use each other’s waste products as a resource.

Designers and innovators have the opportunity to draw inspiration from nature, learning from its systems to find ways to solve our problems. Cleaning products company Ecover used biomimicry to identify a suitable structure to reinforce its Ocean Plastic bottles, made from recycled marine pollution.

Little changes will add up over time. Businesses should start small, track and measure their efforts but accept that it is a long haul. Doing this means accepting the tensions between the short term versus what can be a 20-30-year project.

Working for a business that balances profit with purpose is a common aspiration these days. 87 percent of people want to work for a company with good sustainability policies, and 71 percent say they would not work for a company that does not have a good record on sustainability. Engaging employees and encouraging them to participate and contribute towards sustainability goals will help attract, motivate and retain talent.