A Guide to Sustainable Branding

Picture showing indoor farming as a title image about sustainable branding

By Nine Blaess | 5:29 min

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    Did you know that 81% of consumers believe that companies should help preserve the environment?[1] This startling statistic raises one big question: How can companies engage in sustainable branding? I have compiled nine measures including actionable steps that companies can take to make sustainable branding a reality.

    Recently I was faced with a value dilemma. After refreshing their brand, my client asked me if he could continue to use his old business cards until they ran out. What would you advise him to do?

    From a branding perspective, using the old business cards with the old version of the logo is an absolute no-go. By doing so, the company would only confuse its customers. Even worse, the old logo also had serious typographical flaws. But as someone who cares about the environment, it was difficult for me to tell them to throw the old business cards out. The situation really got me thinking.

    In fact, brands cannot avoid thinking about sustainability as long as they keep using limited resources such as paper, ink and fossil fuels.

    That’s why I have put together this guide about sustainable branding. Here are some measures companies can take:

    1. Timeless and well-designed visual identity

    Had my clients’ logo been well-designed from the start, there would have been no need for rebranding in the first place. So, one way to make branding more sustainable is to choose a timeless design that doesn’t become outdated so quickly.

    It’s possible. After all, companies like Rolex, Ford, Kellogg’s and Levi’s have used their original logos for decades.

    Levis logo that was designed in 1960 on a tshirt
    This version of the Levi’s logo was created in 1960 and is still in use today. Source: Unsplash[2]

    To develop a timeless and well-designed identity, brands can take the following steps:

    • Hire an experienced designer who knows how to create an adaptable and timeless visual identity.
    • Consider your brand’s values and personality. A design that reflects these characteristics will remain more relevant in the long term and not just build on trends.
    • Conduct market research to find out which design elements resonate well with your target audience. Build your identity around those.
    • Avoid short-lived trends that don’t last. Instead, focus on more classic elements at the core of the design.
    • Last but not least, your visual identity is not set in stone. It can evolve over time.

    2. Environmentally friendly production of marketing materials

    As a brand, you have many options to choose environmentally friendly materials for packaging and printing, today. After all, 67% of consumers think it’s important that the products they buy come in recyclable materials.[3]

    Here are some actions you can take to become more sustainable:

    • Use eco-friendly printer inks, such as soy or algae inks.
    • Choose biodegradable materials such as corn starch, bamboo or mushrooms for your packaging. But make sure they degrade without the use of chemicals. 
    • Choose materials with sustainability certificates such as FSC or PEFC or recycled materials.
    • Go digital wherever you can to reduce printed marketing materials altogether.
    Patagonia Booklet about the town Boulder printed with sustainable algae ink
    Design studio Cast Iron using Algae ink, which is created as a byproduct of spirulina production [4]

    Did you know that each tonne of recycled paper can avoid the use of 17 trees, 1,440 litres of oil, 2.3 cubic meters of landfill space, 4,000 kilowatts of energy, and 26,500 litres of water? [5]

    3. Durable design

    It is frustrating for consumers and harmful to the environment when products break down quickly. Brands should offer more durable alternatives that produce less waste.

    Here are some ideas to do that:

    • Use more durable materials such as metal, glass or thicker plastics that are more resistant to wear and tear.
    • Encourage your customers to return packaging or opt for reusable options such as glass containers or metal cans.
    • Consider whether your product can be sold without any packaging at all.
    • Produce products that are easy to repair, for example with replaceable parts.
    • Offer a repair service or take-back programme where customers can return used products to be recycled or reused. Companies like Patagonia and IKEA already have such programmes.
    • In your product designs, avoid following short-lived fashion trends that add to the trash in our landfills.

    Did you know that only 14% of plastics are collected for recycling? And this is not just an environmental issue. A whopping 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth USD 80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy that way.[6]

    4. Local production and supply chains

    A study by the University of Michigan found that making products in the US instead of importing them from overseas could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 21%.

    Brands should produce and source locally, whenever possible. Here are some suggestions to do so:

    • Source materials locally to reduce transport emissions.
    • Use local production facilities. French footwear company Veja, for example, has built a local factory in the south of France to reduce transport emissions and support the local economy.
    • Use eco-friendly transportation like the rail to minimise emissions from transportation if local production is not feasible.

    5. Collaboration with sustainable suppliers

    If you want to go green, sourcing materials from responsible suppliers is essential.

    Take the example of the footwear company Allbirds. The brand uses sustainable materials such as wool, eucalyptus and sugar cane and works closely with its suppliers to ensure responsible sourcing.

    To follow this approach, consider the following:

    • Select suppliers that are aligned with sustainability values and have appropriate certifications such as Fairtrade or GOTS.
    • Set sustainability requirements for your suppliers, including environmentally friendly materials and fair labour practices.
    • Consider the entire supply chain to ensure sustainability from sourcing to the final product.
    • Review your suppliers regularly to ensure that they continue to meet your sustainability requirements.
    • Work closely with your suppliers. Why not develop sustainable products or packaging collaboratively or invest in sustainable initiatives together?

    6. Waste reduction

    Brands can reduce their waste by implementing sustainable practices in their operations. Here are some ideas:

    • Implement a paperless office with digital communication, data storage and billing.
    • Motivate your employees to recycle by providing respective bins and education.
    • Optimise energy consumption with LED lighting and motion sensors. Did you know that a 20% reduction in energy costs can bring the same financial benefit to most businesses as a 5% increase in turnover?[7]
    • Reduce water consumption by using water-efficient toilets and taps, and by addressing repairs promptly.
    • Donate or recycle waste such as old office furniture.

    7. Consumer education

    Although many consumers are already well-educated about sustainability, brands can continue to promote sustainable practices and initiatives.

    Consider these approaches:

    • Position sustainability info on the packaging.
    • Use social media and other marketing channels to promote sustainability.
    • Work with sustainability influencers.
    • Create educational resources such as videos, blog posts or e-books.
    • Host workshops or events on sustainability.
    Ethique sustainable brand messaging
    New Zealand brand Ethique educates the consumer about sustainability[8]

    8. Sustainable brand culture

    Establishing a sustainable brand culture is important if you, as a company, want to integrate your values into your actions.

    Here are some tips for creating a sustainable brand culture:

    • Inform and train your employees about sustainable practices.
    • Encourage participation in sustainable practices such as recycling or biking to work. IKEA, for example, supports sustainability through initiatives like providing employees with free bicycles for commuting and charging stations for electric vehicles.

    • Set a good example and introduce sustainable practices into your daily work routine. For example, use reusable coffee cups, etc.
    • Involve your customers in sustainability initiatives, for example by offering discounts for those who bring reusable bags.

    9. Measuring and optimising sustainability performance

    To make a difference as a brand, you should regularly review and improve the performance of your sustainable branding efforts. Frameworks such as B-Corp certification can help you do this by setting clear standards for assessing your social and environmental performance.

    Here are some steps you can take:

    • Conduct regular sustainability audits to identify opportunities for improvement.
    • Set specific measurable and time-bound sustainability targets.
    • Use sustainability reporting frameworks such as GRI or SASB to track and report on your sustainability metrics.
    • Communicate your sustainability performance to your stakeholders.
    • Use the data to continuously develop strategies that improve your results.

    The future of sustainable branding

    The future of sustainable branding looks bright. More and more consumers are looking for environmentally friendly products and are willing to pay more for them. Meanwhile, more companies are recognising the importance of sustainability.

    In fact, many companies are already investing heavily in sustainable branding, thus gaining a competitive edge in the marketplace. It is exciting to observe this positive trend towards sustainability in business.

    I predict that sustainability will become the new standard, and brands that do not prioritise it, will fall behind. It is time for companies to take action and embrace sustainable practices to create a better future for all of us.

    For a number of years, we’ve tracked the shift away from wasteful spending and toward a more mindful approach to consumption, but what we’re seeing now is much more proactive and hands-on. People aren’t just choosing Brand A over Brand B because it’s produced closer to home or treats its workers better. They're getting involved in the consumption cycle by contributing to the funding or even the creation of products they want and by reselling or renting out their unneeded possessions.

    To sum it up, sustainable branding is both possible and necessary. Companies can advocate for sustainability without jeopardizing their brand; in fact, doing so will actually enhance it.

    If you enjoyed reading this piece, you might also like Brand Storytelling: How Companies Can Leverage Our Love for Stories and learn how to tell a compelling narrative about your sustainability efforts.


    [1] Nielson IQ. Plastics and the circular economy. https://archive.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/explore/plastics-and-the-circular-economy

    [2] Image by Rosesh Bhandari on Unsplash

    [3] NACS. Consumers Demand Sustainable Packaging. https://www.convenience.org/Media/Daily/2021/Apr/29/6-Consumers-Demand-Sustainable-Packaging_Research

    [4] Image source: It’s nice that. Algae offset ink replaces petroleum-based pigments in Patagonia’s printed city guide. https://www.itsnicethat.com/news/cast-iron-patagonia-boulder-guide-algae-offset-ink-publication-131219

    [5] The world counts. https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/other-products/environmental-impact-of-paper

    [6] Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. https://archive.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/explore/plastics-and-the-circular-economy

    [7] Carbon Trust. Making the business case for energy efficiency. https://www.carbontrust.com/news-and-insights/news/making-the-business-case-for-energy-efficiency

    [8] Image Source: Ethique. https://www.instagram.com/p/CpDhvZLJLfc/

    [9] Jennifer Elks. Sustainable Brands. Havas:
    ‘Smarter’ Consumers Will Significantly Alter Economic Models and the Role of Brands. https://sustainablebrands.com/read/defining-the-next-economy/havas-smarter-consumers-will-significantly-alter-economic-models-and-the-role-of-brands

    Title image by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels


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