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Brands back sustainability, but making it a business imperative remains an onerous undertaking

Kate Howe is executive director at MSQ Partners, working with the group’s portfolio of agency brands to enhance the Group’s reputation and drive overall growth for the agencies and their clients alike.

Previously, she was Executive Director and Chief Growth Officer for Dentsu Aegis Network UK and Chair of DAN’s business-to-business agency, gyro. Her career spans roles both client and agency roles including a four-year stint as CMO for Gala-Coral Group. Kate’s also Honorary Secretary of the IPA and a Trustee for Macmillan Cancer Care.

Kate Howe

Amid a crisis of confidence around the world, long-term profitability and increasing sustainability can only be balanced if there is trust and truth.

If businesses were asked whether they could use their commercial activities to improve poverty, hunger and disease while promoting gender equality, education and environmental sustainability, one would find most are compelled to say ‘yes’. In this era of the ‘post-truth’ where issues of authenticity and identity are particularly significant, the only way to do business is to make sustainability a business imperative.

This is evident in The Drum’s latest Market Insight Report on Sustainability in partnership with gyro, which reveals a majority (83%) of business leaders believe in the ethical and moral imperative to incorporate sustainability into their processes. The study further discloses that over half (54%) of marketers feel investing in sustainability will positively influence the perception of their brand, while 43% agree it leads to long-term financial gains. However, the unfortunate reality remains: only 38% have a current defined sustainability strategy.

The onerous undertaking, without a doubt, is to build a business model that is truly equitable and sustainable. The study, entitled 'Mind the Gap: How Marketers Feel About Sustainability,' explores the role of marketers in pushing the sustainability agenda. Over 200 brands and agencies were interviewed to gain a more detailed understanding of how marketers perceive their organisation’s impact on the environment, the barriers they encounter, and how they view their role in driving sustainability.

Having worked with businesses on some of these issues, I find that the sustainability-minded leaders are all talking about generating positive growth for the communities we live in. At gyro, which has a unique culture defined by connecting business to humans, we understand the hard task of separating a growing rhetoric around ‘doing good,’ and taking action that questions the logic of a system that precipitates social inequality or environmental destruction.

It is, however, somewhat heartening to note that according to our research, when it comes to sustainability and its impact on company operations, 38% of respondents feel that issues linked to sustainability have encouraged new ways of working.

At a time when we are all seeking truth, losing trust in political systems as well as private enterprises, we need a new narrative of growth. A narrative that is humanly relevant, builds trust and ultimately leads to an integrated approach where businesses can come together to work towards a common goal – that of managing the impact of the communities that we live in, and the communities our children and our grandchildren will eventually inherit.

Consider this: on the issue of partnership with competitors around common sustainability issues, over half of marketers (55%) in the survey reported a willingness to collaborate with competitors. This can only be good news. However, when businesses are facing some of the biggest challenges in their lifetime — from low margins to increased scrutiny from their consumers to uncertain economic climate to changing technologies — turning a profit in the short term to taking a long-term view of sustainability is not always easy.

The time is now to experiment with new business models that not only help in creating wealth and productivity, but also see an increase in human happiness in a sustainable new world.

Kate Howe is managing director at gyro London

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