The gap between sustainability ‘say’ and brand ‘do’

Why sustainability still feels like a report bolt-on, rather than baked into the brand.

Gareth Davies

CEO Leagas Delaney


In the words of UN Secretary General, António Guterres, ‘we’re on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator’. So why does it feel as if it’s still business as usual?

The clarion call to ‘start treating the crisis like a crisis’ could still be levelled at too many businesses, where sustainability feels like a reporting bolt-on rather than core to culture, brand and business.

There’s been a surge in sustainability ‘speak’ - acronyms, claims, symbols and even reporting is now commonplace . Fuelled by multiple factors such as activism, rising consumer consciousness, ESG analysis and investing, regulatory changes, and recruiting/retaining new talent.

With greater sustainability ‘speak’ has come greater scrutiny. From shareholder activism to new sustainability directives to tighter regulation on claims by bodies such as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The latter’s research revealed ‘consumers find current terminology challenging and difficult to understand’. And it’s not just consumers who are confused, 59% of investors in Schroeder’s Investor Institutional Study cited greenwashing as the major challenge to sustainable investing.

Against the backdrop of this business ‘say’ versus ‘do’ the Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change declared that ‘we are still nowhere near the scale and pace of emission reductions required to put us on track toward a 1.5 degrees Celsius world’. Beyond poster child business models such as Patagonia, how is the COP27 call for ‘more ambitious action needed now’ translating into business intervention?

Five questions that businesses could ask to make sustainability more central, less side-line are:

1.     Is the blahblahblah of ‘sustainability’ getting in the way of re-envisioning and innovation? As Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson said during an interview about her work in Barbuda “the term sustainability was totally meaningless to most people on the planet. Like what is sustainability? And…should that even be the goal?” Applying the spirit of her words to brands; “we need to protect and restore and re-envision and innovate”. Collaborating and moving beyond linear models to circular and regenerative.  

2.     Instead of a series of small steps, what is the biggest impact that the brand can make?  As CEO Ryan Gellert of Patagonia said, ‘operating unapologetically as a for-profit business we project out into the future what our biggest concerns are and what the biggest opportunities are’. Instead of a series of initiatives, brands should reconsider how to refocus and reframe their role behind the biggest environmental, human, or social impact opportunity.

3.     How can brands help avoid a ‘two-tier’ trade-off between cost of living and sustainable choices? Kantar’s Sustainability Sector Index study global research found that 65% of consumers want to do more to be more mindful of the planet and the environment but their increased cost of living prevents them. Using behaviour data, nudges and the cost-saving benefits of sustainable living, brands need to help people navigate these very real tensions and pressures to avoid trade-offs.

4.     How can brands advance transparency as an advantage? Brands have an opportunity to shake up how they approach transparency within their category and communities. Once foundations have been laid, reviewing how best to share information simply and directly. To empower people rather than repeat terminology. Approaching transparency as a potential competitive advantage and opportunity to set a higher bar in their sector.

5.     Does the brand have sustainability of behaviour and thinking?  In the words of Mark Ritson, businesses need to apply the concept of sustainability to themselves. “We are getting more and more short term. Marketers don’t look at the world in a sustainable long-term way”. Brands need to ask themselves whether sustainability is reflected in brand behaviour and thinking overall, not in a ‘planet’ silo. 

It's not as though most brands don’t have sustainability plans in place, albeit with different definitions and KPIs. There’s no doubting the passion of people within organisations or the complexities. However, when the time to act is now, do we need to skip over the ‘taking small steps in the right direction’ mindset (as the Greta Thunberg curated ‘Climate Book’ urges) and ask whether that action is dramatic enough to shift the dial?


Gareth joined Leagas Delaney as MD in January 2020 and was promoted to CEO a year later. Prior to this, Gareth worked at Havas where he spent 12 years in a variety of roles across the UK Group including Managing Director of Havas London, Managing Director of Cake and Managing Partner of Helia. As such, Gareth is one of just a handful of agency leaders to have held leadership positions across creative, digital and data agencies. Prior to Havas, Gareth was Marketing Director of the NFL, where he brought to the UK the first regular season games to be staged outside of North America. He started his career at Saatchi & Saatchi, joining on their graduate scheme and rising to lead their European Toyota business and to co-found their youth agency.

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