Why Claiming ‘Sustainability’ Isn’t Enough for Brands to Stand Out (and How to Change That)

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When you were a kid, did you ever repeat a word super quick until it lost all meaning? 


And the more you said it, the less it made sense. 

What even is blue anymore? You’d think to yourself. 

It lost its identity. 

The colour blue just became a sound you were making. 

Now turn your thoughts to the business world. 

How do you feel about the word ‘innovation’?

Similar deal, right? 

Brands have been using it to describe their products and services with massive overkill, so much so that it simply doesn’t mean anything anymore. 

It’s like a ‘get out of describing the real benefits’ free card. 

Now think about the term ‘sustainability’. What does it mean to you? 

Probably not very much at this point. And that’s because there’s an abundance of brands breaking into the ‘sustainable’ product market. 

And, you’ve guessed it, the word has been stuck on repeat and is losing meaning to many consumers. 

I’m going to break down why sustainable brands need to focus on differentiation within their sustainability claim. 

And how they can do this successfully. 

But first…


Sustainability isn’t just restricted to the fashion industry, as it once was. Brands across multiple industries are considering the materials they’re using, their processes, their output and a ton of other factors that come into sustainable practice (more on that later!). 

But with the rush to be ‘sustainable’, the issues arising are two-fold:


  1. It’s too generic and a saturated term.The word sustainability doesn’t mean much as a standalone term. And many brands aren’t specifying exactly how they’re sustainable.

    Take H&M, for example. They trick customers into thinking they practice sustainability through their labelling. But take a closer look, and their product descriptions are still vague (read this article to see how).

    The long and short of it is, H&M have a ‘Conscious Collection’, which they fail to divulge information on.

    But what does ‘conscious’ actually mean to them? And to us?

    According to their 2017 annual report, the collection is “made with sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.”

    But hang on a second. Organic cotton is biodegradable, and recycled polyester…? That’s never going to decompose, my friend.

    So now you have two very different materials, with highly different impacts on the environment lumped together under a promise of ‘consciousness’.

    To sum up, being conscious doesn’t really mean much, does it?


  2. Brands aren’t considering the complete picture.

    Being specific about how you’re sustainable is the only way to stake your claim in the world of sustainability. But the full-circle approach is vital to truly nail this messaging.

    There are crucial pieces of the puzzle that you need to address if your audience is going to buy into sustainability. The market has high standards and knows exactly what to look for.

    In fact, a recent study by Unilever said that 1 in 3 people make purchases with sustainability in mind.

    So what should brands be doing?



And no, ‘sustainability’ by itself is NOT a differentiator anymore. 

I’m going to take you through a step by step process that will help you find where you sit in the sustainability market. 

It all begins with…


A) Taking a long, hard look at your offering

This is a tricky one to master mainly because it’s tough for brands to step back and be objective about their own sustainability practices. 

  • What materials do you use? Are you up to date with the latest sustainable materials? Remember, this goes for your packaging too! 
  • How do you get your products from A to B? From factory to distribution? If you’re flying back and forth, it’s probably not highly sustainable. 
  • Do you use eco factories with eco equipment? Loads of equipment might mean a high carbon output.
  • Do you recycle? Sounds like a simple one, but can often be forgotten. Wastage is a real problem, especially when it’s going straight to the rubbish dump. Facilities differ locally, so check your materials are actually recyclable. Or, try upcycling furniture and turning things like unwanted paper into internal packaging. Get creative!

Check out clothing brand Everlane’s sustainability page. Notice how they cover all bases here and get super specific about what they’re doing to be sustainable. No vagueness, it’s all there in granular technicolour.


B) Finding out what your customers truly know

Now, it’s all well and good to talk about what your customers want. The majority of good people walking this planet want to look after it more. 

But what do they actually know about sustainability? 

When you consider that the goalposts are changing all the time, it’s important to ascertain your customers’ understanding of the sustainable landscape. Including, how much they really care. 

And the best way to do this is by talking to them directly:


  • With buyer interviews

Nothing beats talking to your target audience, for the simple reason that a conversation truly yields more insights. 

Ask them questions like: 

  • What do you think of when you hear the term ‘sustainability’? 
  • What matters to you when making an ethical purchase? 
  • Do you consider factory practices an important part of the sustainability mix? 

Drill down into the details, so you can get a complete idea of where your customers sit on the matter. 

Here’s a useful article from Crazy Egg on how to carry out your buyer interviews.


  • With surveys

Sometimes, customers don’t feel like baring their soul in an interview. So it can’t hurt to send out a survey, to get a cross-section result. 

Remember to include multiple-choice and open-ended questions so that your customers aren’t just ticking a box, and you hear people’s true voice.

C) Carrying out competitor analysis… properly

So many brands jump headfirst into sustainability without properly considering what their competitors are up to. 

Everything you’re measuring yourself against, you should be measuring them against too. That way you can see where the gaps in the market are. Where your chance is to truly differentiate. 

Never completed a competitor analysis? No worries, this Hubspot article goes through it all with a fine-tooth comb.

D) Finding the gap and filling it!

In fact, don’t just fill it… jump right into it and stake your claim. 

Line up all your findings, along with your competitor analysis and your gap will start to become clear.

TOP TIP: Make sure you delve into how your competitors are communicating their sustainability messages (more on that next). 

It could be that your brand is donating to a sustainability cause where no one else is in your industry. 

Or maybe your material sourcing process has an edge. 

Or perhaps you only use eco-friendly machinery in your factory. 

The point is, you need to highlight your key differentiator and then back it up by the other factors in the sustainability spectrum. 

For example, look at Whole Foods Market’s homepage copy. 

They highlight their main differentiator to be the ingredients they use. They choose to be healthy and state what they ban on their list. 

Then they tell you that their standards have to be met, otherwise ‘they won’t sell it’. 

So as a consumer, you feel confident that they have considered more than just their ingredients. 


It’s not good enough to simply claim sustainability. Show it. 

Be transparent in everything you’re doing that’s sustainable. Show customers you’re considering the full picture. And that you’re constantly evaluating sustainability practices every day.

Back. It. Up… with differentiation and powerful transparency.

Good luck!




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About the author

Ella O'Donnell Head Writer at The Creative Copywriter
A creative mastermind. With years of experience in the copywriting scene, Ella’s marketing and PR skills are some of the most superb you’ll ever come across.

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