A new model for socially responsible brand management

What is a conscientious brand? This article explores the key features of a conscientious brand and the implications for brand management.

The article is a version of a paper published in the Journal of Brand Management (2011).

Ava Maria Hakim
IBM Global Solutions

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 5, no. 1, 2011

THE TRULY CONSCIENTIOUS BRAND cannot exist in a society based on consumerism. The challenge lies in the sociology of capitalism and a system which has created an environment of producers and consumers that support each other in an ongoing cycle of eco-terror and innovation decadence. Patterns of consumption and the animal spirits driving today’s prevailing economic systems have to change in order to go beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the ethical capitalism that remain closely connected with the profit-responsibility of the corporation to its stakeholders. Positive change has to strike at the core of the problem—the model itself. By doing so, the opportunity exists to develop a sustainable economic and social model versus a model that, by its very nature, has more negative impact than the positive impact created from its “sustainability” efforts.
   The model would have at its core the following five concepts:

  • Mass production = mass destruction
  • Innovation should be mindful, not landfill
  • Measure long term use value
  • Quality is a craft
  • Consumer needs are basic

Brand management plays a significant role in influencing and affecting consumer behaviour. Changing consumer behaviours and production philosophies, while expanding control of strategic brand direction, will determine the speed at which a socially responsible and environmentally friendly economic model will be developed.

Sustainability is parallel to the horizon
In a line diagram of production, sustainability is the horizontal baseline. This represents the essence of sustainability—the ability to endure the forces that act upon it. It also represents the goal—equilibrium of production with the resources needed to produce. In today’s consumption-based society, demand is increasing the distance from the “production” line to the “sustainability” baseline. As production increases, so does waste and the depletion of resources. This has a multiplying effect with more waste potentially impacting future resources and thereby negating any positive results from other pro-environment initiatives. In Figure 1, nothing is moving toward the “sustainability” baseline. This is the production model of consumerism. Sell more, produce more, use more—in any order you like. Sustainable development defined as “that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”1 is not possible in this model. As long as development forces an increasing depletion of resources and continued growth rate of waste, “sustainable development” is in fact an oxymoron.2

Figure 1: Impact of a consumption-based model

   Ethical capitalism and CSR initiatives attempt to change the direction of these lines by injecting innovation. But in most cases the innovation can only impact the angle of the lines. For example, eco-efficient design may decrease the angle of the waste and resource line, but because production continues at the same or increasing rate (fuelled by consumers connecting to sustainability) the impact remains incremental. Similarly the use of renewable resources may decrease the rate of depletion of resources, but without a change in production numbers, the direction remains the same. Rarely is there an impact to the production line because by its nature, capitalism is about production and growth. The consumer becomes both the target and source of this destructive desire for growth.

Concept 1: Mass production = mass destruction
As long as the focus is on producing more stuff for more consumers, the “waste” and “resource” lines move away from sustainability. To move closer to the “sustainability” baseline, both the “waste” and “resource” lines need to change direction—waste needs to be removed and resources need to be used at a rate less than or equal to the natural rate of replenishment.
   ‘Researchers have compared humans’ annual demand for resources with the area of land needed to generate the required resources and absorb the wastes … They calculated that in 1961 human demand for resources was about 70 percent of Earth’s ability to regenerate; by the 1980s demand had grown to equal the annual supply of resources, and by the end of the 1990s it exceeded by 20 percent Earth’s capacity to sustain consumption. “It takes the biosphere, therefore, at least a year and three months to renew what humanity uses in a single year”, so that humanity is now eating its capital, Earth’s natural capital.”3 Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh uses a powerful metaphor—the Sutra on the Son’s Flesh—to illustrate the outcome of maintaining current consumption patterns.4 The moral of the Sutra is that in effect we will be eating the flesh of our children if we do not make changes now to safeguard their future through more mindful consumption.
   To create more goods for more consumers, mass resources are taken from one location, often shipped to another location for development and then sent to distribution points for consumer masses around the world. Waste is created throughout the cycle not just at the end of the product’s life.
   To reduce waste, the amount of goods produced needs to be reduced and changes need to be made in how things are produced. Innovation and quality concepts need to be applied beyond mere product design to eco-efficient production systems—or “eco-systems” of production quality. In these “eco-systems” of production, waste is ultimately recycled into the “natural resource” and quality drives the need for fewer replacements and long-term use value (Anderson, Sarah et al 2004; Wessels, Tom 2006).5 Figure 2 illustrates the impact of innovation and quality to production reduction—narrowing the gap between waste and resources.

Figure 2: Impact of reduction in production

Muji, a Japanese retail company that sells a variety of household and consumer goods, was established in 1980 with the idea of “completely eliminating wastefulness … It started with careful selection of materials, streamlined processes and simplified packaging. The concept of rationalizing products by totally eliminating wastefulness, and at the same time making them more attractive, is at the heart of traditional Japanese æsthetics”.6 The company looked to add quality with a no-label philosophy. They design things based on simple functionality–‘not a fancy towel, but a useful towel. Socks with right angles like feet. Beautifully simple bicycles.’ The Muji design process resists technology and prototypes are produced with paper rather than computers, so as not to encourage unnecessary detail. The manufacturing process is determined on the basis of the consumer”s use of the product, which in turn is a design priority. Finishes, lines and forms are minimized for manufacturing ease. They maintain continuous and open communication with customers through the Quality Products for Everyday Life Research Center—a “laboratory” where they have dialogue with customers to determine what “will suffice”. Muji does little or no advertising, gaining recognition purely from word of mouth, and quality of product.

Concept 2: Innovation should be mindful, not landfill
The current nature of innovation is iterative, rapid, and for competition’s sake. In an economic system where greater profit and continued growth is the goal, innovation becomes a source of survival and the means for “beating” the competition. This type of innovation creates an innovation decadence that spews products for the sake of creating something “new” rather than creating something useful or something needed. It produces an array of choices that are essentially the same with minor differences in features designed to appeal to the consumer looking for the latest thing or “lifestyle enhancer”.
   Take a look at the number of bottled water drinks. Carbonated water, sparkling water, spring water, filtered watered, water with flavour, and even water with vitamins (for those who prefer not to get their vitamins through proper nutrition). The water comes in big bottles, little bottles, plastic bottles, squirt bottles. The Container Recycling Institute reports that “Americans buy an estimated 34·6 billion single-serving (1 litre or less) plastic water bottles each year. Almost eight out of ten end up in a landfill or incinerator. Hundreds of millions end up as litter on roads and beaches or in streams and other waterways. Taxpayers pay hundreds millions of dollars each year in disposal and litter cleanup costs. That”s 877 bottles wasted every second”.7 Yet more than one of the water companies claims to be socially responsible with a sustainability focus.
   Furthermore, innovation focused on product differentiation not only stresses out the natural environment with unnecessary resource usage and waste, but it also causes societal stress as consumers, and labourers struggle to “keep up” with the latest technological advancements.8 Innovation in a sustainable model needs to be directed beyond the walls of the corporate cash register and the marketing department. It needs to address the entire product life cycle and focus on the resources not only to create but also to dispose of the product. If innovation ends up in landfill or on roads and beaches, it is not innovation—it is rubbish. Sustainable development requires innovation to define a process that changes production to reduce waste and maintain natural resources.
   Apple, Inc., ranked as the top most innovative company in 2011 by Fast Company,9 has an environmental approach that begins at the design stage and provides a comprehensive “cradle-to-grave” approach including a full Life Cycle Assessment. Apple tracks the environmental impact of each product by measuring greenhouse gas emissions for its facilities, the manufacturing process, product packaging, transportation, and customer usage of its products. An environmental report is provided for all products they currently ship. Their recycling programme “begins in the design stage, when we create compact, efficient products that require less material to produce. The materials we do use—including arsenic-free glass, high-grade aluminium, and strong polycarbonate—are highly valuable to recyclers, who can reclaim them for use in new products”.10 These practices enable Apple to drive greater efficiency and develop products that have less impact on the environment.
   Riversimple, a UK-based transport provider with the goal “to eliminate the environmental impact of personal transport” is applying business model innovation to change an entire industry. Riversimple has applied what they are calling “whole system design” to develop a completely new approach to auto manufacturing. This approach looks at the entire system (of business) and optimizes the whole versus focusing on one single subsystem.11
   Today, auto manufacturing is based on a model that generates revenue by “selling more products”. Design and technology are used to sell more products and sell more products more often. By not defining their business as auto manufacturing, the Riversimple model looks to sell mobility as a service—shifting the auto manufacturing model mentality of “sell more products to make more money” to “generate revenue from less product”. The interest of the mobility provider becomes the efficiency, longevity and quality of the vehicle in order to optimize the revenue from each vehicle versus optimizing product sales. Like Muji, Riversimple looks to accomplish their goals via a collaborative innovation environment that is open to the world of designers and engineers.12

Concept 3: Measure long-term use value
The real measure of the value of an innovation, or product should be in the long-term life time use value—not share or transactional economic value. Our society of consumerism continually wants and buys the latest, throwing away the “old”. But in an environment of rapid innovation, old becomes younger and younger. Consider the life span of a cellphone—two to five years at the maximum? Nearly 2 billion cell phones were sold in 2007, double the sales number in 2000.13 Including the handset, battery and adapter, each represents about one pound of waste that needs to be managed.14 Add to that all the accessories, whose lifespan is even shorter and it becomes apparent that recycling efforts will have to increase significantly in order to be at all effective. According to Environmental Protection Agency reports, the amount of recycling is increasing, yet the actual percent of what is recycled has remained constant because consumption continues to grow at an ever increasing rate.15
   By designing for long-term use value rather than short-term profitability, the rate of waste production slows along with the need to produce more and more of the same basic thing. It also means creating a product that is built to last and bringing to market those innovations that make a significant difference—a difference that is worth the overall impact it has across its life time. Wouldn’t it be better to have a cellphone designed with the same principles as a fine Swiss watch? And rather than throwing them away every two years, we pass them along to the next generation who actually longs to use it.
   IWC Schaffhausen has been engineering master timepieces since 1868. The company was founded in Schaffhausen, Switzerland to take advantage of the skilled craftsmen, low wages and location. From the beginning, IWC used invention and innovation to design according to the founder’s ultimate mission: “simple but perfect, absolutely reliable mechanical watches for everyday use”. The company began keeping detailed records for every watch that casino online has left the factory since 1885. Since 1885, details of the calibre, materials used and cases have been entered into the records. In the case of later models, the company claims that its service department has the parts and is capable of repairing and maintaining watches from every era since IWC”s foundation in 1868.16
   Today, IWC is still in Schaffhausen with a few hundred employees. Their timepieces are still produced to the quality goals set at inception with many of its models sought by collectors. Quality, treasured products—products likely to never occupy a landfill.

Concept 4: Quality is a craft
Schumpeter states in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that capitalism forced out the artisan and craftsman. “The world of the artisan was destroyed primarily by the automatic effects of the competition that came from the capitalist entrepreneur”.17 Gone with the artisan and craftsman is the passion for producing individual items of quality and moreover, gone is the connection of the producer to the final product. With the assembly line and the “factory” concept (applied even in service organizations today) workers have become more and more disconnected from the final product and from the actual consumer of the product. Rather than one person putting their name on the product and holding accountability, there are now sales organizations that sell, factories that produce, and a whole host of directors driven by their own agendas. In very few cases do sales work in the factory or vice versa. The factory worker has no connection or accountability to the consumer. After all, if there is a problem, the consumer will call the help desk in a low-cost country and be assisted by someone who is “scripted” and has no impact on the design or production of the product. And all sales wants to do is sell. How authentic is that? Yet you will find that many corporations utilizing these practices are also branding themselves as socially responsible.
   In the proposed model, the craftsman is brought back into the picture with the sole responsibility to add more “soul”—to bring back a passion for quality. Quality—not quantity—is the key to sustainability. IWC is one example of the true value of quality. But this also requires that consumers understand the value of quality and change their compulsive buying behaviour. Conscientious brands need to influence conscientious consumption.

Concept 5: Consumer needs are basic
According to Jeffrey Sachs in The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time, “the extreme poor and the poor make up about 40 percent of humanity”.18 He continues, “The gulf between today’s rich and poor countries is … a new phenomenon, a yawning gap that opened during the period of modern economic growth … Today’s vast income inequalities illuminate two centuries of highly uneven patterns of economic growth.” He goes on to explain that this discrepancy is due to the ability of some regions to achieve unprecedented “long-term increases in total production” with technological innovation being the main force behind this achievement.19 But, at what cost?
   Numerous studies and indices show that human development and satisfaction do not continue to grow with personal expenditures or Gross Domestic Product (GDP).20 “Despite high and sustained levels of economic growth in the West over a period of 50 years—growth that has seen average real incomes increase several times over—the mass of people are no more satisfied with their lives now that they were then”.21 The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), a measure that looks at human development and welfare of a nation in relation to economic progress shows that in fact the “well-being” of Americans has declined even though GDP has increased. Similarly, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) which measures the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens22 shows a negative correlation between GDP and the changes in HPI. The Index supports the view that “Over-consumption in rich countries represents one of the key barriers to sustainable well-being worldwide”.23
   So although growth is needed to provide 40 per cent of humanity to a standard of living that ensures survival, there appears to be a point where growth no longer provides positive benefits. “Growth not only fails to make people contented; it destroys many of the things that do. Growth fosters empty consumerism, degrades the natural environment, weakens social cohesion and corrodes character”.24 This occurs because once basic needs are satisfied, the market and promoters of growth convince us that we need more—more to demonstrate that we are accomplished, that we live a certain lifestyle and that we have meaningful, progressive lives. But meaning does not come from manufactured objects of identity. Moreover, this consumption-based model is not sustainable. It does not positively impact our behaviours, our sense of well-being or the well-being of our society and the planet. Even as global consumption expands without precedence, consumers basic needs are not being met—sanitation, water, food, and happiness.
   The United Nations Millennium Development Goals to cut poverty in half by 2015 are certainly noble. But if the thought is to progress billions of people along the path of the current “high-income”, consumption based countries, the plan is strongly faulted. It has been stated that “if everyone in the world were to consume as much as the average consumer in the rich countries we would require four planets the size of earth”.25 Without a change in the culture of capitalism itself, without the development of a more conscientious consumer and society as a whole, the dream of ending poverty may be achievable but totally unsustainable. Such progress will be void of what people really want—happiness.

The role of brand management
To develop the “truly conscientious” brand will require an expansion of brand management’s influence on production, development and areas of innovation. Without some ability to influence the development of products and services, brand management is not managing the brand but simply creating marketing messaging.
   Brand management plays a significant role in influencing consumer behaviour and brand managers have a key role in helping to eliminate those things that drive excessive consumption and social and environmental destruction. Consumption in itself is not a bad thing. Rather it is the increasing rate of consumption by a relatively small part of the global population that puts strain on the environment and forces consumption patterns on others that are not sustainable. Eliminating shallow marketing messaging and “lifestyle” advertising is the first step toward positive change and influencing the development of a conscientious consumer—one that demands quality, eco-efficient products with long-term use value—from all the products that they purchase. The same type of creativity that is applied to developing identities and campaigns needs to be applied to developing products that eliminate wastefulness. The goal is more with less. More meaning, less stuff. More quality, less waste.
   Change has to occur in production and consumption. Corporate social responsibility initiatives typically only address the symptoms and in some cases drive further increases in the rate of production, waste and consumption inequalities. Brand management has the ability to influence both production and consumption, but to do so brand management will also need to change. Brand management has to become the catalyst for sustainable development and an activist for the conscientious consumer. In developing countries, there is great opportunity to create models for sustainable development from which conscientious brands can arise naturally. In developed countries this change will be more challenging but the implications are great. Models to address these challenges deserve further investigation and immediate thought.
   ‘When we’re able to get out of the shell of our small self and see that we are interrelated with everyone and everything, we see that each of our acts affects the whole of humankind, the whole cosmos … Mindful consumption brings about health and healing, for ourselves and our planet.”26

   1. Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1987, p. 54. Viewed November 2010, http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm#I.
   2. S. Harding: Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Co. 2006; S. L. Hart: Capitalism at the Crossroads: Aligning Business, Earth, and Humanity, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing 2007.
   3. C. Hamilton: Growth Fetish. London: Pluto Press 2004.
   4. T. N. Hanh: The World We Have: a Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press 2008.
   5. S. Anderson, et al: Alternatives to Economic Globalization: a Better World Is Possible. San Francisco: Berrett–Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2004; T. Wessels: The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England 2006.
   6. “Back to Our Origins, Into the Future”, Muji Global 2010, http://www.muji.com/message/. Viewed November 2010.
   7. ‘Bottled Water’, Container Recycling Institute 2010, http://www.container-recycling.org/issues/bottledwater.htm. Viewed November 2010.
   8. D. Harvey: The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
   9. ‘Most Innovative Companies 2011’, Fast Company, no. 153, March 2011, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/153. Viewed March 2011.
   10. ‘Apple and the Environment’, Apple Inc. 2010, http://www.apple.com/environment/. Viewed November 2010.
   11. “About us”, Riversimple LLP 2010, http://www.riversimple.com/Content.aspx?type=7&mode=menu&key=136c7243-2378-407e-96cf-750d15de37a8. Viewed November 2010.
   12. Ibid.
   13. Electronics Waste Management in the United States. Washington, DC: Office of Solid Waste, US Environmental Protection Agency 2008, EPA530-R-08-009, p. 11, http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/ecycling/docs/app-1.pdf. Viewed November 2010.
   14. B. K. M. Fishbein: Waste in the Wireless World: the Challenge of Cell Phones. New York: Inform, Inc. 2002, p. 23.
   15. Fact Sheet: Management of Electronic Waste in the US. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency 2008, EPA530-F-08-014, p. 8, http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/ecycling/manage.htm. Viewed November 2010.
   16. “About IWC”, International Watch Company 2010, http://www.iwc.com/history/. Viewed November 2010.
   17. J. A. Schumpeter: Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: George Allen & Unwin 1976.
   18. J. D. Sachs: The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time. New York: Penguin Books 2005, p. 19.
   19. Ibid., at pp. 28–31.
   20. C. Hamilton, op. cit., at pp. 54–61; S. Harding, op. cit.; J. G. Speth: The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Yale, Conn.: Yale University Press 2008.
   21. C. Hamilton, op. cit., at p. 3.
   22. “About the Happy Planet Index”, Happy Planet Index 2·0, 2009, http://www.happyplanetindex.org/learn/. Viewed November 2010.
   23. S. Abdallah, S. Thompson, M. Michaelson, and N. Steuer: The Happy Planet Index 2.0: Why Good Lives Don’t Have to Cost the Earth. London: New Economics Foundation 2009.
   24. C. Hamilton, op. cit.
   25. C. Hamilton, op. cit., at p. 174.
   26. T. N. Hanh, op. cit., at p. 27.

Ava Maria HakimA new model for socially responsible brand management

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