The Second Wave of Sustainability Hits Swedish Brands

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 2, no. 1, 2008

Thomas Gad
Chairman, The Medinge Group
Founder, Brandflight

Stanley Moss
CEO, The Medinge Group
Founder, Diganzi

When Scandinavians read news about global warning, it somehow does not feel like news to them. It is more like a repetition of something they have heard and feared for years. A long-standing awareness that environmental protection of unique natural resources was necessary has been under discussion at home for decades. They understood the threats, the consequences of pollution and the price to be paid for damaging the richness and variety in flora and fauna. They knew this in turn would severely change the climatic conditions on earth. How did they know this? Because it was a part of their education at elementary schools in Scandinavia for the last 20 years.

Energy saving in this region has a long history as well. During cold winters, when electricity produced in local clean-water generated power stations was insufficient to cover the demand for electric heating, Scandinavians were forced to buy power often from dirty coal-fuelled power stations in eastern Europe. Events like these were a part of their upbringing and it created a deep-rooted understanding of the issues and consequences. Sustainability has never has been such a dramatic story as it now is in world media. Scandinavians find it rather boring, a presumption they probably share with the Germans. After all, the influential German Green Party was established 1985 and Scandinavia has had its own green parties and powerful political factions for as long as people can remember. Thus, last year’s environmental warnings did not really shake anyone up. People simply shrugged their shoulders and said, it had to happen some day in the face of all the reports about global warming. In essence it was old news to them.

What impresses branding professionals is how powerful the concept brand, ‘Climate Change’, has become and how quickly it developed. Another surprise: how strong the personal brand ‘Al Gore’ has got, certainly more potent than if he had simply become another president of the USA. It does demonstrate to Scandinavians the abiding importance of the USA in world opinion-making. Scandinavians have the conviction that this time climate warnings may finally be for real. There is hope that at least it leads to global action.

Inaction by the rest of the world was precisely the problem previously. Nordic citizens felt alone in their vanguard interest about sustainability issues, ahead of their time. It was they and the Germans and possibly the Californians (with smog-stricken Los Angeles) who concepted the first models of responsible thinking. This perhaps sprung out of the New Age movement, which also emerged in Sweden. Nobody else seemed to take it seriously. Swedes later felt sceptical towards the USA for not signing the Kyoto protocol, an erosion of trust over the inability globally to decrease carbon dioxide emissions. After all, the biggest and most consuming nation in the world had turned its back on the crisis after contributing so significantly to its creation.

Sweden’s responsible environmental consciousness is largely political and grew up in combination with the social-democratic tradition and the idea of a welfare state. Government always takes responsibility in setting the rules for social issues. This may explain one reason for the world’s highest rate of income taxation. In Sweden, this so-called Swedish model has lately been under attack, and the new non-socialist government has it on the agenda to adjust the model, so as not to wreck it all together.

There is still a widespread consensus across all political parties about the fundamental principle of governmental responsibility. This consensus about collective responsibility naturally translates over to Scandinavian brands. Scandinavian companies are good at following the rules. At the same time these are nations with small domestic markets and who need to export to survive. They have always been aware of global competition. Scandinavian industries have complained that the social responsibility they have borne has been excessively one-sided, and that it has made Scandinavian products more expensive. This causes Scandinavian jobs to be threatened. Yet, as there are few changes in the policies, so Scandinavian industry has long been compelled to accommodate the expenses of social and environmental responsibility in its operations and costs.

The Nordic paper industry, a world leader, has manufacturers like SCA and Metsä-Tissue and strong European consumer brands like Lambi, Libero, Libresse, Serla and Katrin. These brands are good examples of companies who not only adjusted to the sustainability rules, but developed environmental policies far beyond what the regulations required. They invested in new technologies to turn dirty production into a cleaner one, for minimal impact on nature.

The strong global sustainability trend has led into more self-critical discussion. Industry and government ask: are the brands and businesses in Scandinavia more progressive than the brands in the rest of the world, or have they lost their competitive advantage? Global attitudes move quickly now. Scandinavian brands feel threatened on their own ideological home turf.

Veckans Affärer, the biggest weekly business magazine in Sweden, published its second yearly “green” issue in 2007. The big question posed concerned national sustainability leadership. They asked: who is leading? The magazine editors concluded that there is a “wait-and-see” attitude in Sweden and in Scandinavia at present. What does the widespread global alarm require companies and brands to do more than they are already doing? And how deep will be government’s role in this new climate? The government in Sweden for the first time in more than a decade leans non-socialist and more liberal, a new political landscape. What exactly will this government do, how much will it regulate, and how much responsibility will it delegate to industry?

Scandinavian brands historically regarded green issues as a way to get PR and nurture better image domestically, but the message was not promoted abroad. Companies felt the public out there did not care that much. Now the situation is different. Most serious companies and brands in Europe have some kind of visible sustainability strategy. Green issues have moved from an “extra” to something “included”. Companies and brands are subjected to greater scrutiny over the reality of their sustainable credentials.

Experts today acknowledge how much more difficult it is to stand out using sustainability as a branding tool. The question is now more one of accountability; what do the companies behind the brands actually do, not simply intend to do?

Today, companies feel a pressure to demonstrate anything, and it can often turn into something resembling a bad joke. When Air France desperately offers a ‘carbon footprint calculator’ prominently on their website home page, so that you can calculate the carbon footprint of your flight with the airline, little can be done with that information. All airlines confront the consequence of a basically dirty technology and no real light at the end of the tunnel.

For a large polluter like an airline, every reduction is a positive one and proper action demonstrates the sustainability of your brand. A good example of this hands-on Scandinavian approach, a kind of imperative to impress the national audience, is Scandinavian Airlines’ (SAS) very successful Green-Landings programme. Advanced communication and coordination between aircraft navigation computers and the computers in the air traffic control system have been developed. This yields the capability to calculate the most environmentally friendly flight path. SAS has already performed over 1,000 green landings, and every landing saves 100 kg of fuel and 200 kg of carbon dioxide. SAS knows that once all its planes systematically participate in the programme carbon dioxide emissions will reduce by 90,000 tons per year, equalling emissions from 20,000 cars driving 15,000 km yearly on average. SAS, after three near-to-crash incidents, is resolutely selling off an entire ?eet of Bombardier de Havilland DASH-7 aircraft, costing the company an estimated €250 million and damaged credit ratings. This is being done to preserve SAS brand equity, for which responsibility, reliability and safety are key values.

Another Swedish brand, H&M, has taken a leading position in sustainability issues and earned a degree of acclaim for it nationally and internationally. The company operates in 28 countries and has more than 60,000 employees all working to the same philosophy: to bring the customer fashion and quality at the best price. The brand is now one of the most identifiable, visible and valuable of Scandinavian marks. H&M has leveraged its brand equity from cheap clothing into fashion brand by co-branding with famous designers like Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Victor & Rolf and Roberto Cavalli. Alongside its commercial success, this company demonstrates solid principles of entrepreneurship and a strong sustainability positioning, all the more dif?cult in a business where unnecessary over-consumption, cost-shaving, and issues of ethical production will be the inevitable accusations. H&M has grown into one of the most demanding fashion producers in the world, through determined sustainability policy, hard work, and not just sweet talk.

Today the company stands as a benchmark for the industry. H&M’s active code of conduct encourages compliance with local labour law, statutory pay and working hours, the right to organize and bargain collectively, a ban on child labour, a ban on discrimination, a ban on forced labour, health and safety in the workplace, and compliance with local environmental legislation. All suppliers are monitored by independent auditors. H&M is such a major buyer that this ripple effect has been felt throughout the entire supply side, especially in China. Status as an H&M supplier has become a crucial demand when negotiating production contracts and prices with these suppliers.

Many discussions occur about how to engage the alarming global warming scenario. Scandinavia has a social tradition which encourages state-initiated consensus between politicians and industry, with a reliance on entrepreneurial creativity. This got a boost during the dot-com boom, when mobile phone development, largely achieved by Nordic engineers, resulted in the establishment of world-leading brands Ericsson and Nokia.

Sustainability is not exclusively concerned with environmental questions, but also with issues of public health. Traditional Swedish controls on alcohol, a severe anti-drug policy, high taxes and state-shop-monopoly contradicts the reality that the state owns one of the most high-profile Swedish brands, Absolut Swedish Country Vodka. This brand first began to gain international prominence in New York at the time when Russian vodkas were banned, a response to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. The ban came to include the Canadian brand Smirnoff for the simple crime of having a Russian name, thus driving more vodka-drinkers to alternative labels. Propelled by a rise in the global demand for clear spirits, its popularity in gay culture, trendy bars, with the art community, by clever artistic advertising and a clean, almost-medical design, Absolut came to personify the Swedish attributes of purity and political and environmental cleanliness, represented by a bottle. The current Swedish government has put Absolut up for sale, and all the world’s spirit conglomerates are lining up to bid. Some nationalistic Swedish investors would prefer to keep this iconic national brand Swedish.

IKEA was rewarded last year by the international branding think-tank Medinge Group with one of their yearly Brands with a Conscience awards. The award referenced IKEA’s anti-corruption stance, speci?cally citing its business in Russia, where 300 invited guests for the launch of a new Moscow store were unceremoniously turned away from the celebration. Official permits had not been delivered, owing to IKEA’s refusal to pay bribes to the authorities. In Sweden, IKEA’s homeland, the company is considered to be a sustainability leader among Scandinavian brands (together with H&M and Volvo). IKEA’s strict environmental policy aligns closely with founder Ingvar Kamprad’s sparse and lean management principle—no waste in the economics of the business, environmentally or with energy. IKEA took the initiative to promote low-energy products and is today the leading distributor of low-energy light bulbs. ‘Good design for everyone’ is one of the founding principles and the attitude generally is very democratic and Fair Trade-oriented concerning suppliers, employees and customers.

With this much history in place, sustainability in Scandinavia appears equivalent to a hygienic factor, and consequently a bit boring. Once the claims have been made, actions are more important than words. Companies have discovered it is critical to communicate value beyond sustainability itself. A good example of how this works can be seen in instances where organic food and sustainability are considered in tandem. It is not enough to create the impression of responsible conscience with the consumer. One must deliver more to ensure commercial success. With organic food, the good feeling and the perception of better and more natural taste is important. Svenskt Sigill, an ingredient brand for a variety of different Sweden-produced food products, emphasized its Swedish origin and the good taste (‘Home-made’ is the slogan), with greater prominence than the fact that its line is produced to stricter sustainable standards than ordinary food.

The importance of combining sustainability values in the brand with higher product performance can be seen in the Swedish start-up EcoMarine’s ?rst non-toxic biological paint for boats. Toxic paint has long been a problem for environmentalists in Scandinavia. Boating is a uniformly popular pastime; in fact, most households in Sweden have at least one boat, sometimes several. Frequently these are rather large sailing or motor craft. All existing paints for boats are either toxic to repel growth of algæ and sea grass on the hulls, or non-toxic but lack the repelling effect. Toxic paint is forbidden, since it releases amounts of pollutants into the sensitive waters of the Baltic Sea and the otherwise pristine lakes in Sweden. Recently EcoMarine introduced a paint formulated with natural bacteria, which not only keeps algæ and vegetation off the boat hull, but also creates a slimy surface which increases performance and speed of the boat. Environmentally speaking, it decreases the amount of energy needed to drive the boat through the water.

The performance argument is always the winning one. It is a similar position to that which promotes biofuel ethanol, which increases the performance of the bio-powered car, in comparison to gasoline-fuelled engines of the same size. Saab successfully employed this concept in their brand building, until the argument lost some of its lustre when it became widely known that ethanol (although itself non-carbon dioxide-producing) requires objectionable quantities of energy and carbon dioxide emissions to produce and distribute.

The combination of good conscience and good performance is the wave of the future in Scandinavian sustainability innovation and branding. Swedbank-Robur’s highly successful fund management has shown the market-place real dedication to sustainable investments for 15 years. They consistently argued that such investments could perform very well, or at least as well as non-sustainable ones. Swedbank-Robur has proven that a combination of doing good with good financial performance is a winning proposition. Proofs like these of a successful balance between the opposing sides of the sustainability discussion will always make a huge impression on performance and consensus-seeking Scandinavians

This paper has introduced the argument that Swedish brands have moved beyond other countries’ positions on sustainability. There are lessons to be learned here about the implications for other brands. It is clear that non-Swedish brands will follow the same trajectory, raising their awareness of challenges, solutions and consumer attitudes. Countries without the social democratic model may find it more difficult to follow Scandinavia’s lead, but with the volume of alarm raised every day in world media, and the UN’s recent report which documented the urgency of global warming awareness, velocity towards sustainable behaviour can only increase.

Somewhere out in consumer world there is an opportunity to develop an area of research which evaluates the effectiveness of how sustainability incorporates into the real fabric of organizations. This could be a sustainability orientation measure, which considers the extent to which sustainable thinking is central to decision-making. A project done in Sweden called Brand Orientation Index looked at the degree of brand orientation of 500 Swedish companies; perhaps this is the model to replicate on the course to a global sustainability orientation index? Where else but in Sweden will vanguard thought like this occur.

This paper also appeared in the Journal of Brand Management.

Medinge GroupThe Second Wave of Sustainability Hits Swedish Brands

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