By: Karin Du Chenne, Chief Growth Officer, Middle East & Africa, Insights Division, Kantar

There’s no denying that sustainability is the top untapped business opportunity of 2021, a topic that’s only accelerating globally, especially in the wake of COVID-19, because there’s a clear link between sustainability, brand resilience and growth. As responsibility is the most important tenet of corporate reputation today – 300% more so than a decade ago – it’s time for all businesses to develop their brand resilience by bolstering their sustainability strategy. Here’s how. 

Kantar’s brand equity platform BrandZ shows that resilient brands not only deliver superior shareholder returns, they also get through times of crisis better and recover faster. Getting this right is all about the interplay of purpose, corporate reputation, and consumer trust. 

Summarising this in brand language, it’s about developing a more resilient approach and being purpose-led in developing consumer trust, as having high levels of consumer trust means you build a stronger corporate reputation. And it’s that great corporate reputation that gets your brand through tough times, gets you better shareholder returns and helps you recover faster in times of crisis. 

Sustainability, redefined and reset for 2021

But first, we need to rethink what sustainability means in 2021. It’s almost worthy of a new definition: meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. 

For corporates, this flows across key pillars: profit, or being fiscally sound; people, or being socially progressive, and planet, or being environmentally conscious in our thinking, ways of working and routes to market. Much of this is underpinned by the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which dovetail nicely with the EU Green Deal in looking at how we do business from farm to fork and making sure we’re in line with policy, while changing mindsets and driving behaviour change to a more positive end by looking after our world for the long term. 

While some businesses still feel that sustainability is a nice-to-have, Unilever CEO Alan Jope puts it best: “One of the most dangerous mindsets in the world is to set up a false dichotomy between sustainability and economic growth.” 

So, it’s time for a reset as it’s no longer about profit vs purpose, it’s profit with purpose, especially as the current pandemic has made consumers re-think what’s important to them, especially in emerging markets. We’ve been forced to slow down and reappreciate our family, our homes and gardens, and the environment we live in. This in turn has made us rethink the products and services we use and the choices we make, so we rely on brands to guide us and lead the way.

All businesses therefore need to help consumers make more sustainable choices. We already know about the danger of all the plastic in the sea and landfills, but we don’t necessarily know about all the sustainability innovation brands are undertaking, like these biodegradable drinking straws made from discarded avocado seeds. Each of these small drops of sustainable innovation comes together to ‘make rain’, which is what will make a real change that benefits the world we live in.

Practical examples of putting sustainability into action for your brand

Pre-COVID, we had largely moved to a place where the need for excess packaging and waste was eliminated, as consumers were happy to purchase ‘naked’ food they could feel and smell in-store for freshness. Today, concerns for health and safety mean we want to ensure the produce we purchase is not contaminated by anything. But that doesn’t mean producers need to jump back into single-use plastic packaging. In fact, brands can still offer a branded experience and deliver the quality cues consumers want without contributing to COVID waste, in a way that makes a positive change that’s more sustainable for the long-term and benefits your bottom line. 

That’s why sustainable packaging tells the best brand story, literally communicating the benefit to the consumer. For example, laser technology innovation means you can now etch your branding directly onto produce. This shows that it’s organic and sustainably sourced while still giving a sense of safety, without any paper or plastic waste. There are also new compostable, edible and biodegradable or recyclable packaging options that enable greater care in route to market and support a zero-waste economy philosophy, as the product remains protected and untouched along the journey until consumption. You can even help shorten the supply chain by launching urban farm projects to reduce those food miles.

Albert Einstein’s famous words therefore still hold true: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I encourage you to look for opportunities to rethink the way you do things and change the world for the better, as actions will matter more than words in 2021 and beyond. It’s passionate teams that make this kind of sustainable innovation happen.

Piqued your interest? Chat to Astrid Ricketts, Kantar’s client partner leading our Sustainable Transformation Practice’s Foundational Study in the Middle East and Africa. Fieldwork is set to begin soon across South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and will be nationally representative on age, gender, country and social class. These insights will give us a feel for the sustainability issues that are top of mind in the region, to help your brand drive the long-term, data-driven sustainability conversation in your boardroom. Whether you’re keen to begin your sustainability journey or you’ve already begun but need to better understand the route, reach out for guidance and partner with us for actionable results to ensure your innovation is led with a sustainability lens.