How sustainable companies large and small are challenging industry norms

Sustainable business are not only good for the environment, but their efforts to change encourages other companies within their industries to become more sustainable, too

Leather is unsustainable. Chocolate contributes to deforestation. Cosmetics
stifle biodiversity. Technology leads to waste. Signage isn’t carbon efficient. These are but a few of the industry stereotypes that the businesses who met at a recent roundtable – Avon, Epson, JCDecaux, Love Cocoa and Young Soles – are changing.

Instead, they hope that list will read something like: vegan leather is sustainable; chocolate can support small farmers and the environment, cosmetics can nature thrive, technology can be innovative, signage can be a positive contributor to the urban landscape. And they are all making the kind of change their respective industries need to become leaders in sustainability. 

“I think the first steps consist of integrating sustainability into your business strategy,” says Lénaïc Pineau, CSO at JCDecaux. “Sustainability requires you to be consistent at every level. Every business decision should be consistent with your commitments. And your actions should be consistent with your CSR strategy. What you say should be consistent as well, with what you do.” 

That commitment rang true with the rest of the panel, who agreed that sustainability has to be integrated into a brand’s purpose. A commitment to fighting climate change touches every aspect of the company, from sourcing to staffing to creativity. 

“Being a microbusiness brings a lot of other challenges around sustainability. It’s about how you maintain the company and how a company is going to be here in five- or 10-years’ time as well as the impact that you have on the environment, the community, your consumers and your employees,” Stu Anderson, CEO of children’s footwear company Young Soles says. He adds though, that small businesses have the advantage of remaining nimbler than their larger counterparts; capable of making positive change with greater ease.

And, it’s not just about making change within an organisation, but influencing change across an industry. That was the ethos with which Love Cocoa was established. Run by James Cadbury, the chocolate brand was built with a sustainable, ethical mindset in place. Cadbury says he hopes his company’s practices – including working with small farmers, sustainable sourcing and plastic-free packaging – will influence bigger companies. “A lot of the change is driven by the microbusinesses and SMEs who show the big ones how it’s done. Eventually we will have that influence. Small businesses can do something to kick things off. The bigger corporations need to start to play a bigger part in [sustainability],” he adds.

Companies have a responsibility to help consumers make sustainable choices. Obviously, there are not always standards in a certain industry that you’re able to measure against. But this is where innovation should play a role

Sourcing is a crucial element of sustainable practice for most of the panellists. Imaging technology brand Epson has focused on auditing its supply chain to avoid sourcing conflict minerals. It is also working with innovative startups on closed-loop sustainable materials development, like plastic made from algae. Epson’s head of sustainability and government affairs, Boris Manev, says: “Companies have a responsibility to help consumers make sustainable choices. Obviously, there are not always standards in a certain industry that you’re able to measure against. But this is where innovation should play a role.” 

To source responsibly, a business also needs to understand its industry and uncover the levers of change. In cocoa farming, deforestation is a huge issue. But, by working with farmers, and by reforesting, chocolate companies can make a difference. “It’s working with people. A lot of the farmers are actually small, family farmers and then they sell to bigger corporations, who will sell to another company,” Cadbury says. He adds that education about the impact of deforestation will help not only the farmers, but major companies working in chocolate to reconsider their practices.

Those decisions will also be affected by changing consumer choices. Avon – which has always been a socially dynamic business – is seeing this across the beauty industry. “Women were selling Avon through their social networks 30 years before they had the right to vote in the US,” Avon’s director corporate affairs and sustainability, Natalie Deacon, says. “Sustainability is about building a resilient, futureproof business that truly gives back to people and the planet. It’s about communities and human rights as much as it is about the environment.” Avon is working toward its B-Corp certification and is introducing new recyclable strategies and sustainable products. But its challenge is that while customers are supportive of these changes, they often balk at paying the higher price tag that may come with them. 

Anderson agrees, saying his company’s vegan shoe line was brought about because of customer demand, but the price point is still higher than he’d like. He adds: “One of the biggest challenges in the fashion industry is how we can influence consumer behaviour to shift away from cheap disposable fast-fashion to something more substantive and sustainable.”

But the drive toward sustainability goes beyond customer demand. For the businesses that truly want to make a difference, sustainability is part of every aspect of its operations. “Sustainability is a never-ending quest,” Pineau says. “We can always improve ourselves. You have to listen to the stakeholders in order to transform your company. And at the end, it’s also about collaboration.” She champions breaking through company silos to work across teams and inspire creativity.

Sustainability is a never-ending quest. We can always improve ourselves. You have to listen to the stakeholders in order to transform your company. And at the end, it’s also about collaboration. 

Collaboration is also something that resonates with Deacon. Avon is spearheading a partnership across the beauty industry to unite the likes of LVMH, Henkel and L’Oreal to create a rigorous eco-scoring system to be used across cosmetics packaging. Open to companies of all sizes, the objective is to make sustainability an industry-wide value and communicate that clearly to consumers. “One of the amazing things about working in this industry is it’s so innovative and forward-thinking. We have to do this. We have to work together to drive change, and to be that change,” Deacon says. 

Similarly, Cadbury’s approach to plastic-free packaging and oat milk chocolate is generating interest and creating change in the wider industry. This, he hopes, will drive the price down as bigger companies work with suppliers in more sustainable materials. The impact must extend beyond any single company to really make a difference in the world. 

At JCDecaux, this is the name of the game. The company works hard to ensure its assets and street furniture have a low impact on the environment. Its digital advertising screens are carbon neutral. And it uses those credentials as part of its point of differentiation with advertisers. “We want to help our clients better understand the footprint of their campaigns,” Pineau says. “If you want to make the industry move, you have to help it to better understand the impact it has and where they can have a real role to play.” 

Collaboration across industries and across business siloes is essential to making a difference. Epson’s focus on R&D means it is tackling both issues of supply and issues of consumer hesitancy by integrating sustainable materials into its products. This facilitates a stronger relationship between sustainability managers and channel partners, sales teams and business partners. “We explain that business partners first need to embed sustainability into their management philosophy at the highest level, and then, start from there and understand what their stakeholders, requirements and materials are. Then, put that into concrete action,” Manev says. 

Brand purpose lies at the heart of these strategies. Anderson says: “Your brand strategy is how you think, and your sustainability strategy is how you act. They are two sides of the same coin.” For businesses striving to make industry-wide change, positive, meaningful action is not only good business, but business that does good.

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