Covid-19 is an environmental wake-up call for many (though it shouldn’t be). On one hand, we’ve all seen satellite images of bluer oceans and expanding forests. On the other hand, truckloads of disposable sanitary products are being dumped into landfills and oceans every day.
While most would agree that it’s time to get serious about sustainability, the question remains: what role do businesses - and marketing leaders - play in the creation of a more sustainable future?
“Businesses have a critical role to play in the journey to a more sustainable future, both in terms of ensuring they abide by sustainable practices as well as spreading the word to encourage wider societal change,” says Tina Pang, head of client solutions, Southeast Asia at Twitter.
From 'CSR' to a key part of business strategy
Once a CSR initiative, environmental initiatives are increasingly taking centre stage in a business’s strategy. As Rupen Desai, global CMO at Dole says,
“I think the greatest disservice to sustainability is when we put it as a separate tab on the [brand] site. We need to move to a point where sustainability is a part of the business model, how you scale, how you succeed. [Purpose] should be a key part of strategy instead of an ad brief, which is what a lot of purpose-washing tends to try to do.”
In a way, Desai’s point echoes what many CMOs have told us in recent months: marketing is the end point of purpose. Companies must ensure that purpose, be it environmental sustainability, social equity or access to essential products and services, is truly at the heart of their business.
In mid-2020, the company launched The Dole Promises to address global food insecurity and sustainability, with specific aims of achieving zero food loss by 2025, and zero plastics, carbon neutrality by 2030.
What does that mean in reality?
One of the things the company is doing is creating snacks from ‘ugly fruits’ - deformed fruits that don’t meet certain ‘aesthetics’ to be sold directly but are still packed with nutrients.
Not only is it good for the environment and those living in poorer countries with little access to fresh fruits, but also financially beneficial to farmers, who can sell more of what they produce.
Desai recalls they started with an acute but simple observation: “we live in a world where access to good nutrition is very limited. We live in a world where you pay $1 for a fast food meal, and $14 for a salad. How to achieve that access for all?”
Does sustainability need to come at a cost?
As sustainability shifts from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’, business leaders also need to balance profit and sustainability.
While Desai notes that sometimes, “purpose isn’t purpose unless it is costing you something,” there is a way for businesses to achieve business results and profitability in the long run. In the case of transforming ‘ugly fruits’ into healthy snacks, Desai says that less wastage also means that the business can sell more products, which leads to better shareholder return and financial results.
But what about a publicly-traded company like Mastercard, where there is inevitably pressure from investors?
According to Rustom Dastoor, SVP, head of marketing & communications at Mastercard, profit and sustainability are not in conflict with each other.
He gives the example of the DO card, a collaborative effort between Mastercard and Doconomy.
“The card tracks CO2 emissions generated from our transactions and displays those numbers in a simple app. It allows people to be conscious of the impact they are having on the planet,” says Dastoor. If customers want a physical card, a biodegradable card will be sent to them.
Partnering for good
The DO card brings up an important point: the need for collaborations when it comes to sustainability.
“When you are confronting such a critical challenge, everyone must show up. As a company, we have a low-carbon footprint by virtue of the work we do. However, our extended network has about 2.5 billion private and corporate cardholders. We want to make sure we give them the tools to behave in a sustainable manner.”
Partnership is also especially important for companies with a strong global presence.
“Different countries have different ways to get to the same [sustainability] endpoint. Some countries are very open to having corporations put out initiatives, others have defined rules for how corporations can engage. Some countries are open to foreign involvement, others have strict rules guiding that. We are horizontally integrated across 26 countries in Asia Pacific so our ability to flex and stretch to individual needs of marketers is critical.”
In January 2020, the company launched the Priceless Planet Coalition, working with 50 partners including issuing banks, merchants and digital companies to plant 100 million trees by 2025.
To ensure company-wide commitment, Dastoor says that executives’ bonuses are tied to sustainability goals at Mastercard.
Meanwhile, Desai calls on governments and financial institutions to step up efforts to create a more sustainable world, noting that companies like Blackrock and KKR are making sustainability an investment priority.
Pang concurs that partnership is the way to carve out a more sustainable world. She notes: “Bringing our initiatives together lets us best share our impact with the people we serve - from Tweeps and partners, to investors and people who use Twitter. While our work is not done, we’re confident that our progress positions us well to keep making an impact and improving the health of the public conversation.”