7 ways brands can approach sustainability in their creative briefs

By Helen Hughes, Project Director, 3D & Sustainability at Design Bridge London

  • Know your Brand’s biggest impacts and set a long-term plan in place.

Don’t be swayed by what the media are focusing on right now.  Sure, have a point of view on it – even act on it if you can – but if your brand’s biggest impact is water usage and all your efforts are going into removing the plastic wrapper on a piece of packaging, it’s a bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

At a granular level – have you done a comprehensive product and packaging audit?  Do you know the materials involved and whether they are recovered or recoverable?

At a macro level – do you know your brand’s biggest impacts and what corporate initiatives are in place to address them?  

Partner with creative brand strategists to explore how related brand-led initiatives could connect with consumers and drive forward change.

  • No (wo)man is an island

We’ve said it before on a different topic, and it’s true again here.  Reaching as far back into the value chain as possible, tapping into knowledge hubs and then joining the dots means collaboration is key.

Supply chain leads, packaging technologists, R&D teams and recycling partners are bursting with knowledge and expertise on what is tried and tested; as well as what’s new and innovative in their specialist area.  Ask the question and you’ll be surprised at what comes back.  Harness the knowledge and see how it can be relevant to the brand.

Specialist design, innovation and tech creatives within your agency partners will be vital to help unlock this potential, through audits and facilitated sessions as well as targeted research.

  • Just do it

Don’t expect a standing ovation from your consumers for every single act of sustainable development. 

This movement is picking up pace and, and unless you’re first to market or approaching things in a different way, some initiatives have simply become the ‘new normal’ so just get on and do them (e.g. recycled content, optimum recyclable materials and associated labelling) whilst consumers are still on-side.  Choose the right forum to communicate changes to consumers that care; and ensure third-party influencers (e.g. non-government organisations) are up to speed on your plans.

Share current and planned initiatives with your creative agency partners and see how they can build on them.

  • DO sweat the small stuff

When you are a global consumer brand, even the smallest of changes can require massive effort to get in place.  But done right, a small change at scale can have a huge impact, so it really is worth the research, the negotiation, the trials and the tweaks in order to get it right.  There may be more exciting initiatives to be striving towards, but picking off the smaller, quicker wins along the way is equally important and will build confidence for stakeholders.

  • I’ll have what she’s having

Every now and again, something comes along that creates a shift in consumer culture.  It might be prompted by impending legislation, or emotive stories in the media, that causes people to really want to do something and show outwardly that they care.

That is where a solution to a problem that carries social currency can really help effect change.  The notion that something is very visually different or requires a change to a habit – and in doing so prompts others to comment on it or question their own habits; try the new solution themselves; experience the benefits and then join the movement, thus advocating it to others.

Breaking engrained habits is hard.  So, anything we can do that rewards consumers – and gets us acknowledging each others’ efforts has got to be good.  Backed by good insight, elegant design solutions are at the heart of heling change behaviours.

KeepCup is a good example of social currency.  It works because there is choice, so you can pick the size and style to suit your individual needs; and crucially, it was developed in collaboration with baristas, so is a welcome asset in coffee shops, rather than a perceived inconvenience.  It is a more pleasant shape to drink from, and more often than not, you get a reusable cup discount.  These tangible benefits are outwardly evident to others and may just get them to question their own actions and follow suit.

  • Aim to close the loop

Look for the opportunities to embed circular thinking into every link of the value chain.  With resources becoming more and more scarce, identifying ways to reuse, recover and repurpose the materials we already have in our supply systems is essential.  This is fertile territory for the creative industries who are naturally looking at new and interesting ways to solve problems, whilst also looking cross-category for inspiration as well.  There are pockets of circular thinking happening, but collaborating with brands to make it a reality at scale and in turn pass the stories and associated benefits onto consumers, is the next big challenge.

  • Be in it for the long haul

There’s no one silver bullet that is going to send a brand soaring on the 100% sustainable trajectory.  Just sustained effort behind short, medium, long-term goals and activity rooted in the brand’s core values.  

Make it a part of each and every brief and don’t let it be the first thing to be compromised.    Be prepared to challenge and be challenged: your creative partners are an inquisitive and solutions-orientated bunch!  In return there is opportunity to build a deeper, richer brand experience for a broad range of stakeholders, including: consumers – who are striving to live a more sustainable lifestyle; and trade customers – who are responding to legislation and trying to maintain consumer loyalty.

Article by Helen Hughes

Helen Hughes is a Project Director at Design Bridge London with a specific focus on 3D and Sustainability.

After 4 years at WRAP, where she worked with clients across all aspects of the supply chain to identify opportunities for resource efficiency and waste reduction, Helen brought her natural passion for creating a sustainable future to Design Bridge. She has become a core member of the team and a champion for driving sustainability goals and values, both with clients and internally for the business

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