brand story & messaging

How Unsustainable Events Undermine Sustainable Brands

Sandra Stewart | April 30, 2014

Everything an organization does says something about the brand—for good or ill. Tell most business leaders this and they’ll nod (“Of course!”). They’ve heard it from branding experts a million times. But understanding and acting are concepts that often seem to live in different universes.

Case in point: meetings. Conferences, retreats and other gatherings are an opportunity for sponsors to model sustainable behavior and choices. But do they? Well … I went to a sustainable business conference last year sponsored by an organization that usually does everything right and found myself cringing at the tubs of bottled water, 100 percent nonorganic food and lack of composting bins or even recycling bins. It made the organizers seem clueless and careless, and probably undermined their credibility among people new to the organization.

Yet Nancy Zavada, principal of MeetGreen and co-founder of the Green Meeting Industry Council, reports that this kind of disconnect is common. She told me about an environmental organization that was producing an annual conference focused on sustainable resource use. Informed that the host hotel could not sustainably source their longstanding favorite breakfast item, the event organizers chose to serve the item anyway; they just wouldn’t tell attendees about the source. So, no sustainability or transparency. That might have shielded them from opprobrium in the moment, but operating that way tends to come back and bite a brand.

There are plenty of reasons it’s hard for all of us (I certainly include myself) to always act on our sustainability values: our aversion to losses, our tendency to value short-term gratification over long-term consequences, and herd behavior, to name just a few from the behavioral psychology hit parade. Our deep attachment to the familiar and comfortable, coupled with our instinctive distrust of change (anything different will surely be worse), may be the biggest obstacle. Zavada’s story certainly illustrates this well—the problem wasn’t that the conference organizers lacked good options; it was that they just wanted what they’d always had, and their attachment trumped their values.

Making change desirable—there’s a communications challenge. Maybe we could start by portraying all nonsustainable things and behaviors as old-fashioned, undesirable and generally uncool, and all sustainable ones (not just a few) as modern, sexy and hip. That would be good branding.


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