Most businesses seeking to be sustainable will follow sustainability frameworks that are based on the triple bottom line (TBL). This framework helps companies measure their environmental, social and financial impact. Although this is much better than simply looking to make a profit, the most sustainable and successful companies should be going beyond the TBL. They should be looking at how they can transform capitalism at a suitable pace and scale, with the necessary radical intent, in order to keep within our planetary boundaries.
Having radical intent is, of course, a lot to ask from our favourite brand and we can’t simply stop buying from any brand we like simply because it is not looking at how it can radically transform capitalism. The least these brands can do is show that they actively minimise their social and environmental impacts and that they demonstrate innovative thought and practice in doing so.
It’s also important for brands to look to the future and create evidence-based targets that will help them lead the way for the low-carbon transition. It’s important for brands to report transparently on their performance and targets so that ethical consumers can make informed decisions about buying from these brands. These targets can be in line with industry initiatives, such as pledges to be a circular business or to only have recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging. However, it’s also important to note whether the business is progressing in line with these targets or falling behind. For instance, many large chocolate companies had aligned with targets to reduce child labour in cocoa farms by 70% in between 2010 and 2020, but there are now more children workers than in 2010.
A sustainable business will also measure and report on the risks it faces from climate change. For instance, if a particular crop will be unable to grow in increasingly drought-prone or flood-risk areas, then they should demonstrate that they are aware of this fact - specifically the financial weight of these future risks. This is so that the companies that decide to not make any real progress toward being more sustainable will be dropped by their investors, who themselves want to be investing in companies that are not at risk as a result of climate change or are at least doing something to minimise or mitigate these risks.
It’s also about including every stakeholder into the mix. That includes their customers, ethical consumers or not, as well as local communities in which they might source their raw materials from, the NGOs that have pressured them to take more radical action and the investors that want to spend their money on businesses that are purpose-driven.
Finally, if you’re not sure, here is a small checklist to determine whether your favourite brand is actually a sustainable business:
- Takes into account its TBL (eg. measuring and reporting on its financial, social and environmental impacts);
- Actively minimises and has targets to minimise negative social and environmental impacts;
- Is a radical and innovative business;
- Has a purpose that goes beyond simply making profit;
- Transparently reports on performance and impact;
- Has measured its financial risks from climate change;
- Has sent environmental data to the CDP for grading;
- Is a certified B-Corp (although this is not an end goal);
- Is certified by companies that are legitimate and effective or goes beyond these certification companies by paying a higher premium, for instance; and
- Is part of industry initiatives that allow it to be held accountable for following through with the relevant targets.