"Cutting out sustainability in the face of economic downturn is short-term and misguided"

Brands are backing away from prioritising the planet amid difficult financial conditions but sustainability cannot be a mere trend, writes Caroline Till.

It now feels as though we’ve reached a tipping point in the design and lifestyle industries. Global unrest and economic uncertainty are causing financial and strategic jitters; brands and corporations are shifting away from focus and investment around sustainability.

Examples include the recent closing of Ikea’s innovation agency Space 10 and Nike’s gutting of its sustainability teams. H&M’s sustainability-focused CEO recently stepped down.

I am experiencing some deeply worrying conversations

And there are more fundamental problems too. Weighed down by internal politics, time-poor, and tasked with producing scary amounts of stuff around “seasonal” calendars, many designers have become merely specifiers.

As the director of a design futures agency whose focus is supporting brands in moving towards a more sustainable future, I am experiencing some deeply worrying conversations with our clients. Senior decision makers and budget holders are starting to say things like “sustainability just doesn’t sell” and “we are coming from the perspective of the brand, not the perspective of the planet”.

Milan design week was particularly disappointing in its apparent shift away from sustainable principles, as Dezeen editorial director Max Fraser has already pointed out.

Our window of opportunity to secure a safe and liveable future is rapidly closing. It’s starkly clear we need to do everything we can to limit the detrimental impact of historical systems that rely on a linear process of extraction, production and consumption. But despite this, and despite previous progress, we still haven’t recognised that sustainability is not a “nice to have” or, indeed, an “add-on if we can afford it”, but, rather, an imperative that we cannot ignore.

Sustainability is about a planet on which all living creatures, including human beings, can flourish. So why does public concern seem to be diminishing? Have we become weary of doom-mongering, resigned to our powerlessness, and ready to think we may as well just do as we wish?

Have cost-of-living increases caused us to view sustainability as somehow a “luxury”? Are brands treating external pressure to do better as a trend that has now passed its peak, so they can return their focus to the bottom line and appeasing shareholders?

Economic success and sustainability are far from mutually exclusive

Kim Kardashian’s recent advert for her Skims Ultimate Nipple bra aimed at humour, but in fact it scared me rigid. Kardashian, armed with charts and a pointer and a prominent pair of fake nipples, says: “The Earth’s temperature is getting hotter and hotter, the sea levels are rising, the ice sheets are shrinking… that’s why I’m introducing a brand new bra with a built-in nipple, so no matter how hot it is, you’ll always look cold. Some days are hard, but these nipples are harder and unlike the icebergs, these aren’t going anywhere.”

Ha ha. But: the fact that someone with such a huge platform and influence can parody environmental concern seems to ridicule hard-won progress, particularly in the fashion industry. This feels really dangerous.

And are brands now also finding bona fide sustainability efforts dangerous too? Examples of brands being held to account over sustainability claims that don’t stand up, both via lawsuits and intense public scrutiny (equally damaging) are causing companies to retreat from highlighting their sustainability initiatives and goals.

Accountability is – absolutely! – a good thing. The high profile of sustainability concern has led to greenwashing as well as genuine systemic change, and greenwashing should indeed be called out. In January this year, EU legislation banned generic terms such as “environmentally friendly” and “climate neutral” used without proof. As a result, we are seeing a shift from overt communication around sustainable initiatives and achievements to more covert activities.

Are we entering a new era of “green hushing”? If pressure from consumers who expect sustainability and purpose to be baked in as standard is fading, are we now reliant on bottom-up legislative standards, and are these sufficient? While EU legislation is relatively robust, in other countries around the world, including the UK, there is little legislative framework to hold companies to account.

And yet: cutting out sustainability in the face of economic downturn is short-term and misguided. Economic success and sustainability are far from mutually exclusive. Professor Ioannis Ioannou of the London Business School is an expert both in sustainability practices and business economics, and he has found that, in the long term, what he defines as the “responsible organisation” outperforms the pack.

We have left it late to act on sustainability

According to a 2023 report from McKinsey, an organisation not known for its warm and fuzzy tree-hugging credentials, “financially successful companies that integrate environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) priorities into their growth strategies outperform their peers – provided they also outperform on the fundamentals. The message is clear: not only can you do well while doing good – you can do better.” McKinsey found that such companies not only achieve better growth, they also exceed their competitors’ shareholder returns.

Sustainability is challenging. The issues that underlie it are complex and interconnected; the route to it is a journey. Progress on that journey is achievable, however.

At FranklinTill, we have been working for the past five years with a global flooring company. A decade ago, it decided to put sustainability at the heart of its ethos, and it has persevered with that strategy ever since, focusing specifically on circularity. It has not been easy. Not only has the company had to focus on materials it can successfully recycle infinitely, it has had to figure out how to recuperate its products at the end of each useful lifecycle, gather them back in and reprocess them.

This is highly technical stuff. But dogged consistency, pursued with dedication, applied through making continual improvements, has made the strategy a success. In this example, strategy (long term, evolving) is clearly separated from marketing (short-term campaigns, focusing on new, new, new).

The balances are tricky. How can we remain vigilant to greenwashing while not demanding unrealistic perfection? Holistic and transparent sustainability communications that clearly state where a brand is performing well – and equally clearly state where it needs to progress and improve – would be one way forward.

We have left it late to act on sustainability, so lifestyle changes will be necessary, but this doesn’t have to all be about limitation or restriction. With a clear and consistent strategic vision, innovation – both in technology and in our thinking – can propel us into a future in which both people and planet can flourish.

Caroline Till is co-founder of design research agency FranklinTill.

The image, showing seaweed-based yarn developed by Keel Labs, is courtesy of Keel Labs.

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