Debunking the Myth of Sustainable Brands

Debunking the Myth of Sustainable Brands

Let’s face it: there is no such thing as a ‘sustainable brand.’ Achieving true sustainability means constantly thinking about ways of giving back more than a company takes from the environment and society. In essence, sustainability means creating tangible value for stakeholders.

While brands are important corporate assets, the value they create for stakeholders tends to be largely intangible in nature. Brands themselves do not physically pollute, clean-up, employ, invent, invest, engineer, design, reach out, assist, collaborate and singlehandedly, they cannot save the world. Corporations and the networks, innovations and people inside them, on the other hand, can – and often do.

Irrespective of how catchy the phrase ‘sustainable brand’ is, the fundamental issue remains: either a company is sustainable, or it’s not.

Some companies approach sustainability with an unparalleled level of innovation and fearlessness. I have written about such companies numerous times in books, essays and articles, which is why I am so disappointed to see many of them continuously omitted from the surveys, articles, and highly-touted lists pulled together and promoted by the corporate social responsibility (CSR) industry – particularly those citing the “greenest,” “most ethical” or “most sustainable” citizens or brands.

In March, CRO Magazine chose Merck, Monsanto, Chevron, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Smithfield Foods and other questionable choices as “Best Corporate Citizens of 2009” (read my response here).

Last week, a survey released by Cohn & Wolfe, Landor AssociatesPenn, Schoen & Berland Associates; and, Esty Environmental Partners indicated that Clorox Green Works, not Seventh Generation, was the “Top Green Brand.”

Perhaps this result was to be expected given that Clorox Green Works now owns over 40 percent of the green cleaning category. But I found the result disappointing, since Seventh Generation is a 20-year old pioneer in the green cleaning market, a leader in green business practices, and is well on its way to becoming a truly sustainable company. Clorox Green Works was recently introduced and has basically relied on its marketing muscle and existing distribution infrastructure to achieve success with Green Works. Although the Green Works product line is a step in the right direction for Clorox, the company also markets highly profitable toxic products like Formula 409, Tilex, and Armor All.

As frustrating as Seventh Generation’s pass over was, the icing on last week’s faux ‘sustainable brand’ cake had to be Forbes’ lead story: “ExxonMobil: Green Company of the Year.

Exxon’s latest marketing campaign sends a message to stakeholders: “Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenges” while “preserving and protecting the environment.” Some people might buy that message, along with the company’s pitch that, despite its past and allegedly present efforts to fund global warming skeptics, a sizable investment in natural gas equals a genuine commitment to “going green.” But judging from the reader commentary posted on the Forbes website, not everyone is easily persuaded:

What are you smoking Forbes?? Besides Natural Gas?? Or did Exxon just buy a lot of advertising from you? Calling the company that denies global warming is real “green” is akin to calling the Mob a bunch of nice guys. Burning natural gas is not green, period. Cleaner, yes. But not green. Do some real investigative journalism and not just regurgitate some PR hack’s false truths!

As this reader commentary correctly points out, by calling an unsustainable company like ExxonMobil “green,” Forbes crosses the line between journalism and public relations. In the same way, by labeling other unsustainable and ethically dubious companies “Best Citizens,” “Greenest Brands,” “Sustainable Brands,” or what have you, the CSR industry is effectively perpetuating a standard of greenwash.

Greenwash is dangerous to our economy because it runs the risk of breeding consumer and investor cynicism toward genuinely sustainable companies that create environmental, social and financial value through the products they sell, the investments they make and the issues they relentlessly fight for. All of this ‘information greenwash’ being spun out of research groups, media companies and the CSR industry accumulates on the web over a period of months and years. In time, consumers and investors will be left with a data trove of incomplete and arguably inaccurate information with which to make investment and purchasing decisions. That means their money could end up in the wrong places – in companies and investment funds that, if they knew better, they would not support.

That problem is as serious as it is unjust.

Christine Arena is the author of The High-Purpose Company - The Truly Responsible (and Highly Profitable) Firms that are Changing Business Now Like what you just read? Get your daily dose of corporate insights.

Follow Christine Arena Twitter: @christinearena