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Building Trust Through Sustainability

It doesn’t matter if you’re selling a product, providing a service, raising awareness or calling others to action; to be effective you’ve got to build trust.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend Sustainable Brands’ annual conference SB’14 San Diego. One of the big takeaways for me was the importance of addressing sustainability to build trust between a brand and its stakeholders.

A brand’s ability to sell you a product or move you to take action depends largely on how much you trust them to deliver on their promise. So it’s not surprising that brands spend a lot of time (and money) trying to earn our trust. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, smart companies are no longer talking at their audiences through ads and commercials, they are talking with them. They understand that to earn our trust, they have to engage consumers in a more balanced dialogue, and get beyond the features of their products and services.

That’s what Sustainable Brands is really all about: companies actively working to earn trust by focusing on what they value beyond commercial profit. With this in mind, I thought I would share a few reflections from SB’14 on how brands can engage in the larger conversation about sustainability, and earn trust in the process.


Genuine sustainability is about setting ambitious goals and being transparent in your successes and challenges. Nobody’s perfect, and brands that only talk about how great they are run the risk of being written off as disingenuous.

According to Starbucks’s environmental impact director, Jim Hannah “Hyper-transparency is a must. It’s not something we should be afraid of; it’s something we welcome.” Which is exactly what Starbucks did when they reset their 2015 goals for reducing the number of disposable cups used in their stores.

Brands, like people, are more likeable, endearing, and trustworthy when they take responsibility for their actions. Trustworthy brands are open to criticism and honest in addressing their challenges and failures.

Give and Take

Brands that “get it” understand that reciprocity isn’t optional—it’s the cost of doing business. Brands that really “get it” understand the opportunity to generate goodwill and earn trust by doing more good than harm. In sustainability speak, they call this a net-positive impact; that is, “making an explicit and verifiable contribution to the diversity, resilience and health of ecosystems and human societies.”

It’s debatable as to whether net-positive impact (contributing more than we’re consuming) is an achievable goal for many companies. But it’s not stopping big brands and companies from trying; nor should it.

According to Adam Grant, professor of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Give and Take, it’s better to be perceived as a “giver” rather than a “taker”.

“Among successful givers, they’re concerned about benefiting other people, but also are ambitious about achieving their own goals. That means that when they succeed, they end up building stronger relationships. And other people are more likely to be rooting for givers as opposed to gunning for them.”

It’s really not that complicated. By treating people and the environment with respect and seeking to make the world a better place, you’re more likely to be viewed in favorable terms. Do you want to be a brand that people gun for or one that people root for?


Actions speak louder than words. Ty Montague, author of True Story, and leader of the Storydoing project, spoke at SB’14 about his in-depth exploration of this concept:

 “The old way to market a business was storytelling. But in today’s world, simply communicating your brand’s story in the hope that customers will listen is no longer enough. Instead, your authentic brand must be evident in every action the organization undertakes.”

Of course storytelling is still a critical piece of the puzzle. After all, you’ve got to spread the word about your efforts. But by putting your brand values in action, and inviting your allies to join you in the process, you will have much more compelling stories to tell.

So, how trustworthy is your brand? Are you honest in your successes and failures? Are you a giver or a taker? Do your actions back up your claims?

While much of the content at SB’14 focused on consumer brands, the same basic ideas apply to the way in which nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and SMEs communicate with their constituents. By demonstrating that you understand the big picture, and care about more than profitability, you can build a brand that people trust – a truly “sustainable brand”.


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