What Makes A Brand Or Business Sustainable?

There are so many environmental buzzwords that pop up these days; but, what does it all mean and how do you know what makes a brand or business sustainable? The Sustainable Business Guide (SBG) identifies five major areas to assess a business or brand’s environmental priority. In fact, all of the brands and businesses listed on this website have passed this check — click here to view the directory.

Important Note:

Not every brand, business, organization, or country defines “sustainability” or “environmental impact” in the exact same way, which can be confusing and overwhelming. However, no matter what the definition is, the points outlined in this blog post should be the minimum consideration to truly understand if sustainability practices are indeed being implemented.

The SBG wants to encourage that even the world’s best sustainable brands and businesses aren’t perfect. Instead, the most important thing is that they attempt to align themselves with the contents of this blog post.

Understanding what makes a brand or business sustainable:

There are five major areas (criteria) that a brand or business needs to meet in order to be considered “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly”. In addition to those points outlined below, a truly sustainable brand or business should be able to keep up with those standards. Keep reading for a deeper understanding.

Photo by Appolinary Kalashnikova.

5 Things that make a brand or business sustainable:

As mentioned in the note at the beginning of this post, while each brand and business will vary from industry to industry and with their products or services, it’s important to understand that the criteria below are guides to help understand if a brand or business is sustainable. These aren’t specific metrics but clues to help understand the information a brand/business puts out — or in some cases, what they don’t.

Hint: if a brand doesn’t have this information listed publically or refuses to provide it, they’re most likely not following sustainable practices or prioritizing the environment.

1. Sustainable materials and production

What is an item made from? How is it made? These are two important questions to consider when assessing if something is truly sustainable. Of course, some things are easier to identify and won’t require much questioning — like, a disposable water bottle. Most of us know a plastic water bottle has plastic in it — partially because it’s in the name. But, also because we may be more familiar with plastic versus other materials. Other items like a toothbrush, t-shirt, high-heels, or television may be more difficult to try and identify without looking up.

A common theme with sustainable brands and businesses is having the materials and production listed clearly. Sometimes this will be on the item’s shopping page or in a separate tab or report also on the website. The most important is that these are available (they will always be free to read and access).

Questions to ask a brand or business:

What is the waste policy?

What materials are being used?

How long is each item/product expected to last? Is it disposable or single-use?

What are the carbon offsetting or other low-carbon initiatives?

How much water, energy, and natural resources are used by the company in production and wider?

2. Ethical working conditions

The next point highlights how often brands and businesses take advantage of the lower cost of labor. Many source or manufacture their items and build a business by hiring workers at a lower employment rate — typically providing a salary well below the living wage. This leads to overworking — common in these scenarios and the factories are usually mass-producing items that have a significant negative impact on the local area and the planet overall.

Helpful information: The people who are most often exploited in these unsafe and unfair working conditions are women and young girls. As a result, millions of women and young girls are exposed to a high incidence of work-related accidents and deaths, as well as occupational diseases (International Labor Organization)

In April 2013 the Rana Plaza accident occurred in Bangladesh, where a garment factory collapsed because of unsafe building and working conditions. 1,132 people died in the collapse of the factory (which also housed five other garment factories). 2,500 people were injured.

In fact, this is not the first time something like this has happened. It turns out, five months earlier, 112 workers died in another factory-related accident where workers were stuck inside a burning factory in Dhaka.

Questions to ask a brand or business:

Are garment/factory workers protected by a union or have regulated working conditions?

Do hours worked comply with not only local but human rights laws?

Are workers receiving at least minimum wage for their hours worked?

Do employees receive access to health care, maternity/paternity leave, etc.?

Are ethical pension options provided?

What overseas treaties or protections are signed to care for employees?

3. Supply chain mapping

Supply chain mapping is one of those ways to understand what the sustainable puzzle pieces are and how they fit together. Mapping connects each part of the process and shows where ingredients originate/are sourced. This also helps to understand carbon emissions and impact.

Furthermore, it’s one thing for a brand or business to say they’re sustainable and to release statements that claim to follow points one and two. But, it’s another to see the proof and it in practice. The questions below help to identify a strong sustainable supply chain map.

Questions to ask a brand or business:

When was the last time the map was updated?

Are factories/businesses conducted in high-risk natural disasters or climate-impacted areas?

What are the top priorities for mapping? Is carbon included? How is it measured?

Are the details for partners included? Who are the partners? Where do they source?

4. Circularity — internal and external

The popular saying, “reduce, reuse, recycle” is part of the circularity approach. And, just like what it sounds like, circularity is a way of keeping the process going — like a circle — a continuous loop. When comparing circularity practices to a brand or business, this means that there is a plan and strategy in place for the business or items to extend its life and not fall off to the side. This includes reducing waste/impact, reusing, recycling, and regenerating — turning what already exists into something new and repurposing it.

A more technical explanation and overview can be found here, from Ampliphi.

Questions to ask a brand or business:

How many items are made per year/cycle?

Is there an attempt or priority to make timeless pieces versus mass production?

What is the life of the product/item?

How many times can the product be used?

What is the “end-of-life care”? for what is purchased?

Can all or some of the materials be responsibly disposed of?

Is there a second-life option for the products, available through the brand/company?

5. Reporting

Lastly, a truly sustainable brand or business will report on points 1-4 and provide specific measurements and data points to each. Evolve Beauty does a great job of reporting its sustainability. They outline a realistic journey that is realistic about what they’re working towards. While it’s not all sparkles and praise within their pages, they outline what their goals were for the previous reporting year, what they did, how they did in comparison to what they expected, and what their continued next steps are.

Helpful: a sustainability report may be also called an impact, social, or environmental report.

Remember, reporting is a top indicator in identifying if a brand is sustainable or not is its commitment to the environment. Without this, we don’t know if any of the claims are actually true and happening. It’s in this section that all the other points we talked about above are shown.

Questions to ask a brand or business:

When will the next sustainability report be published? How often?

What emission scopes are prioritized, measured, and actively being mitigated?

If there are environmental certifications, memberships, or awards held, what are the measurements for achieving and maintaining them?

What is the company’s waste and waste prevention policy?

Where are the definitions listed for the environmental buzzwords? It’s important to know what the specific views on sustainability are, what carbon-neutral means to a company, and more.

Maintaining a brand or business’ sustainability:

To conclude, sustainability isn’t a one-time thing — it’s a full-time job — just ask Chief Sustainability Officers and their teams. It’s one thing to invent a new sustainable material or find an amazing way to reuse materials and existing systems, but true sustainability is being able to maintain the environmental practices and criteria over time.

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