Beyond Greenwashing: By Returning To What Matters, Companies Can Reach The Next Level

Like every buzzword that has entered the business lexicon, 'sustainability' has lost most of its meaning along the way—even as it becomes more urgent than ever.

Sustainability.

It’s a word that makes plenty of headlines—but do we even know what it means?

Not many do. That’s because ‘sustainability’ has been added to the ever-growing list of industry buzzwords, joining the ranks of other words-become-clichés like ‘cutting-edge’ and ‘culture.’ Like every buzzword, the reason for its prominence is that it’s become enticing through demand. And like every buzzword, it’s lost most of its meaning along the way.

Companies are catching on to the fact that consumers are more informed about what’s going on in the world today than ever before, millennials and Gen Z in particular. These younger generations feel so strongly about doing their part to make the world a better place that they’re ready to change their habits and lifestyles to effectuate this change. Part of that is to only support sustainable brands. And the stats don’t lie: nearly two-thirds of consumers in the U.S. prefer to engage with eco-friendly brands only. As a result, the vast majority of businesses are working to become more eco-conscious.

But here’s the problem: most companies will just tack ‘sustainable’ onto their brand without changing a thing about their operations or mission, or they’ll make ‘going green’ a short-term goal in hopes that the fad will eventually fade away—also known as greenwashing. But sustainability isn’t a passing trend. Growing environmental concerns are making sustainability more urgent. Consumers know this, and the companies that invest their energy and resources into sustainable initiatives also know this.

It’s time we return to what matters.

Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution

When we think about corporate sustainability, it’s easy to point the finger at organizations we assume would have the most impact, like those in the manufacturing and supply chain sectors. But every business has an environmental footprint, and that footprint, big or small, carries weight.

Many might be surprised to learn that even my industry has an influence on the health of the environment. Music streaming? Sounds ludicrous. But Kyle Devine, a University of Oslo professor, found through his research that digital music still produces greenhouse gas. I share this because it’s important for leaders to be transparent and hold themselves accountable about their direct impact on the environment.

At Spotify, we take this very seriously. In order to be part of the solution and not the problem, we’ve committed to change. In 2017, we moved our server onto the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) to achieve carbon neutrality. In 2018, we reduced our carbon footprint by 1,500 tons after decommissioning six out of seven of our data centers, and in 2019 we closed our last data center and achieved 83 percent renewable energy. Last year, we decreased our greenhouse gas emissions another 26 percent. And this year, we are working on releasing Spotify Sonics, a sustainable audio offering that presents a green solution with carbon-neutral audio spots.

This will continue to be an ongoing effort for us, as it should be for any organization. Long-term success isn’t possible when you only put in temporary effort, it needs to be integrated across every part of your company—how you operate your offices, how you choose suppliers, how you approach business travel, etc. Instead of being focused on doing less harm, leaders must focus on doing more good.

Purpose-driven brands are the future of business

Previously, companies only thought about purpose insofar as their products or services were involved. This is what they believed people wanted, and this is how they believed they would make the most money. But this isn’t true. Your brand isn’t just your products or services; it’s shaped by every area of your organization. You can inject as much purpose into your products and services as you wish, but that doesn’t mean you’ve earned the support of your customers.

We know that people are willing to pay more for products or services from sustainable brands. We also know that consumers will abandon purchases altogether to switch to eco-friendly businesses (no matter how loyal they were to that brand before). Leaders need to stop thinking that flashing a shiny product to consumers with the promise of ‘purpose’ is how they’ll take their company to the next level. Consumers don’t only care about a business’ offerings anymore, they care about what they stand for. And that is how brands will be judged moving forward.

To be purpose-driven is to be human-centric. By putting your customers and the planet first, you show consumers that you care more about ushering in meaningful change than you do about making money—and this is what will give you a distinctive advantage in your industry. In other words, everyone will benefit.

Brian Berner is an advertising media and technology executive with over a decade and a half of experience. He is the Head of North American Advertising Sales for Spotify, the popular streaming service, and he leads nearly 200 employees across various departments in all matters related to advertising sales and revenue within the United States and Canada.