The Times Sustainable Business Report 2021 Why creativity is the secret weapon for sustainability

As the world struggles to contain climate change, toxic air in cities, and plastic in waterways, sustainability should be at the top of everyone’s agenda. And yet it is nowhere near as mainstream as it needs to be. 

While big companies increasingly commit to reduce their carbon footprints, few are moving as fast as they should do and the public remains sceptical. Similarly, while a growing number of consumers see sustainability as a priority, influencing the products they buy and services they use, many more still see it as a remote and distant issue.

A big part of the problem is the way brands and businesses formulate and communicate their plans to reduce their environmental impact. Usually these strategies focus on “deep knowledge” and detail, as they set out what firms plan to do to reduce their impact. 


Too often, however, they fail to resonate with the employees, consumers, supply chain partners and stakeholders they are designed to reach, because they do not engage or inspire. The tendency instead has been to forsake creative problem solving and lateral thinking for a dry educational approach, fearing anything else would lead to accusations of dumbing down.


In truth, creative thinking should be at the heart of any sustainability plan right from the outset, not layered over at the end. It is not just about finding the right medium for your message, or investing in powerful marketing. It’s about baking creative thinking into the DNA of a strategy so it avoids repeating old tropes and cliches, remembering that in an ever more noisy social media environment, only the strongest ideas cut through.


Firms also need to realise that creativity is not antithetical to the more practical, analytical forces that traditionally drive businesses, such as growth, sales and profit. In the last 20 years creativity and lateral thinking have become key forces in once famously analytical industries such as technology, science and engineering. There is no reason why the same should not apply to sustainability, given how important it is becoming to brands and consumers.

We need to see creativity as a way to accelerate progress against ambitious sustainability goals and targets. If the competitive edge today comes from who is setting the boldest targets, that advantage will very soon come from who is progressing the most. Impact will be measured in action, not words.

Kathleen Enright

Of course, every plan must start with a genuine ambition to improve a firm’s sustainability impact, and it should be scrupulously researched and developed. Strategies must be heavyweight and far-reaching; the rational case must be put forward; and companies should be able to answer challenging questions from investors, NGOs and others about what they have promised to do. But is that really enough? We need to be honest about what it will really take to deliver at the scale and speed we need to. We have to challenge all involved to make sustainability appealing, inspiring and sexy to the millions of people that can help accelerate it inside and outside of businesses. That’s why we need to apply lateral thinking and creative problem solving from the start, helping to shape the narrative and ensure all the hard work, worthy ambitions and complex targets ultimately reach their audience. That’s the reality and it’s good for both busines and society at the end of the day. But creativity is also important in another way because Increasingly switched-on consumers in particular whether highly switched on or not don’t want to be preached to or have things explained. People want to feel and believe brands are making a difference, and it is up to companies to convince and inspire them into action. That can’t be done without creative thinking and activation.


Sustainability needs creative thinkers to be in the room from the start, helping to shape the narrative, finding ways to engage and convince Board members to back a bold ambition, and ensure all the hard work, worthy ambitions and complex targets ultimately reach their audience. 


Businesses must start by being braver. The world of sustainability is, perhaps ironically, rather conservative and lacks diversity, so firms need to bring in fresh talent from a wider range of backgrounds to shake things up. “Without rebels and renegades in the world of sustainability, companies will not drive inclusivity and real change across their organisations” says Kathleen Enright. 


They should also stop aiming for perfection when it comes to their sustainability agendas and get out there and start talking about the issues. Too many hold back, worried that if they speak out on issues like climate change without having a fully-developed plan in pace, they will be accused of “greenwashing”.


Of course, marketing without substance must be avoided at all costs. But at the same time it is impossible to develop your thinking on sustainability as an organisation without having honest dialogues about the issues with the players that matter: employees, staff, competitors, NGOs, the media and interested consumers. 


Firms should be open about what they are getting right and wrong, and stop worrying so much about how they will look in their quarterly corporate reporting. They also need to be free to take risks, innovate and try out new ideas even if they don’t work. “This is what people want to hear from businesses. No-one has solved sustainability. It might appear counter intuitive but as long as you can demonstrate some real commitment and ambition to address it in a meaningful way then being authentic and open on where you are is more likely to build trust and respect, and that’s what builds momentum.” Adds Huw Maggs.


Salterbaxter runs ‘SB Connected’, a webinar sessions, where brands can discuss their sustainability strategies working to Chatham House rules. It has enabled major brands who face the same challenges to share best practice with each other, and potentially find partners who can help accelerate their sustainability agendas.

In order to drive the progress the world needs, we need as much dialogue around what isn’t working, as there is around the achievements to celebrate

Huw Maggs


In short, businesses need to bring the twin peaks of creativity and deep knowledge closer together in their sustainability strategies, even if it might feel new and difficult. Those who do it successfully stand to reap huge gains, including retaining and attracting more customers, boosting market share and even entering new markets. Most importantly it will allow firms to future proof their business for the long-term, at a time when consumer attitudes to sustainability are evolving rapidly.


Kathleen Enright and Huw Maggs jointly lead Salterbaxter, a creative consultancy at the service of sustainability, that aims to encapsulate this approach. They themselves appear to personify what sustainability needs – deep expertise, creativity and partnership.

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