The Language of Sustainability

By Jennifer Vasilache

When it comes to long-term brand strategy, sustainability is no longer a mere option. Rather, it has become a mandatory ingredient that brands have to integrate into their identity and business objectives. For a brand’s value to endure, its needs to rally rather than report, inspire rather than demonstrate, lead rather than follow. While initiatives are growing both in numbers and impact, corporate citizenship and sustainable product and platform names keep flourishing and reflecting the collective state of art and mind.

When it comes to long-term brand strategy, sustainability is no longer a mere option. Rather, it has become a mandatory ingredient that brands have to integrate into their identity and business objectives. For a brand’s value to endure, its needs to rally rather than report, inspire rather than demonstrate, lead rather than follow. While initiatives are growing both in numbers and impact, corporate citizenship and sustainable product and platform names keep flourishing and reflecting the collective state of art and mind.

Growing green

As Clorox reminded us recently through the brand’s “Green Works” campaign: "something's gone wrong with green." The green gold rush unfolded, and the term went from being a flagship symbol of sustainability to a suspicious and undifferentiating claim. “Ecology” was for some time the word to twist and stretch in all possible ways in order to overcome the green light jam, but the real issue of “greenwashing” is that “green” falls short of communicating that citizenship is more than a philosophy, it’s about what we do for the planet every day.

Then, enters blue. Blue is the most widespread color on earth (thanks to the water that covers this Big Blue Marble) and also the color of choice for new and renewable energy sources. When it comes to citizenship, blue is more than a new color convention: where green speaks to fixing the planet, blue is about what we give back to the planet. Volkswagen once again makes the Best Global Green Brands list with its “BlueMotion” technology and “Think Blue” sustainability platform, which shows how consumers are expected to rethink green and how they can give more than they take.

To avoid “bluewashing,” some brands bounced back on the bigger conversation initiated by blue. IBM’s “Smarter Planet” started a trend of speaking about the world, possibly inspiring names like Starbucks’ “Shared Planet” and Nike’s “Better World.” These sustainability efforts speak to engagement and participation, and they certainly capture a global consciousness around citizenship, but these names are starting to sound similar—and that makes it difficult to determine how they’ll talk about where their efforts will go next.

One for all, all for one

So, ways to embody citizenship are evolving. What can we expect to see next? Shifting from macro- to micro-citizenship seems to be the newest approach: it’s not just how it affects the planet, but how it affects each one of us. Brands are giving their customers the credit for how they make a mark in the world. The shift from “everyone” to “just one” is so profound that it has shaped business models.

TOMS Shoes established a business model on the buy-one-give-one promise, with its “One for One” initiative, donating a pair of shoes for every pair purchased. That kind of intimate, personal responsibility has caught fire with startups, such as New York eyewear startup Warby Parker’s “Buy a pair, Give a pair.” Larger corporations have already integrated it into their lexicon: IBM leverages its citizenship positioning by going from Smarter Planet to Smarter City and Smarter Buildings.

In addition to the emerging trends we uncovered for corporate citizenship, consider these five tips when choosing language to make your sustainability initiatives matter:

1. Relate your initiative to your business.

It’s a straightforward way to drive choice for customers and reinforce your brand’s value. One great example is Unilever’s “Sustainable Living Plan,” putting together a generic term and a unique modifier, it ties up to the brands’ areas of expertise in health and well-being.

2. Use simple, intuitive, and user-friendly language.

Let’s say you are a global initiative organization. Getting your audience excited for multi-scale modular solar cells might be challenging. Consider how the Nike-sponsored LAUNCH relies on a single active word to rally, motivate, and communicate that you are taking bold actions.

3. Choose longevity.

Try not to yield to the temptation to use popular terms; they could become obsolete faster than you think. Despite a resilient and now refreshing way to talk about environmentally friendly products, Clorox’s “Green Works” line does not stand out nor give justice to the brand’s efforts. On the other hand, Coca-Cola’s global “Live Positively” campaign is a great continuation of the brand’s heritage and promise. Like your sustainable strategy, the language you choose needs to reflect your brand’s value for a long time.

4. Be real about the outcomes of your actions.

Economy, like Environment and Society, is a fundamental pillar of sustainability, and there is no shame in communicating around the profitability of the green business, whether it’s your business—“Sustainable Business at Nike, Inc.” or PepsiCo’s “Performance with Purpose” tagline—or your customers’ business (e.g. HSBC’s “sustainability risk” and “climate business”).

5. Share the cause.

Turn challenges into opportunities, and use positive action-oriented language. Sustainability shouldn’t be an obligation, but the reflection of a fulfilling holistic state of life. A simple name like Starbuck’s “Shared Planet” says that together, we have the ingredients to make the world a better place.

Jennifer Vasilache is a senior consultant for Interbrand’s verbal identity practice in New York.