The Good Business of Sustainable Brands


Muireann Bolger

The Good Business of Sustainable Brands

Maridav /

Today, consumers want to support sustainable brands, and they expect companies to demonstrate their core social and environmental objectives in a clear and transparent way. Muireann Bolger reports.

Increasingly, brand owners are finding that devising effective corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives can play a key role in helping them form an authentic identity in the marketplace.

However, success often depends on forging the right collaborations with suppliers and ensuring their commitment to sustainability, according to speakers at the session, The Good Business of Sustainable Brands.

“Consumers demand this authenticity and transparency, because so much information is available now. And if the information is not real, they will see through it. People are demanding it from their brands,” said Robert Tadlock, Associate General Counsel at Patagonia, Inc. (US). He outlined how Patagonia, a sustainable food and clothing company, has put sustainability at the heart and soul of its organization, including its intellectual property (IP) department.

“Transparency has been a foundational principle because it is the cornerstone of our brand, and the consideration and impact that goes into our products,” he said.

But, he noted, this level of commitment can pose challenges.

“We don’t own our supply chain; we partner with third parties. This can be a challenge because we don’t control those businesses,” Mr. Tadlock explained.

“This means that we do a lot of work to select good partners who understand who we are and what we are going to demand from them. They might be very technically adept but if they don’t have the social and environmental requirements we demand, we will move on,” he said.

“Many people ‘talk the talk,’ but it is the walking that makes all the difference.” Jessica Murray, Toms Shoes

Luciana Villa Nova Silva, Sustainability Manager, Natura Cosmeticos S.A. (Brazil), which sources sustainable ingredients from the Amazon for its cosmetics, agreed.

“A commitment to the truth is the only way to achieve the quality relationships that are so important in supply chains,” she said. ”We as companies are responsible for our choices.”

The session’s moderator, Jessica Murray, Director of Intellectual Property and Corporate Social Responsibility at Toms Shoes Inc. (US)—a retailer that has pledged to donate a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair it sells—noted: “Many people ‘talk the talk,’ but it is the walking that makes all the difference.

“You can do all the good you want but if you don’t make yourself accountable you will never elevate your brand.”

Simon McCalla, Chief Executive Officer at Sedex (UK), agreed that sustainability has become inextricably linked with a brand’s value and reputation.

“Looking after the ethical and environmental side of supply chains has a direct impact on a brand’s reputation, in terms of protecting it from risk, but also in how consumers see the brand. It allows brands to have a direct social value,” he said.

He added that his experiences at Sedex, a membership organization that provides an online platform for companies to manage and improve working conditions in global supply chains, have taught him some valuable lessons.

“Transparency has been a foundational principle because it is the cornerstone of our brand.” Robert Tadlock, Patagonia, Inc.

“The worst thing a brand can do is to run away if they see a problem with a supplier. Truly strong brands work with suppliers to up their game,” Mr. McCalla said.

Sustainable brand owners can face challenges when it comes to brand enforcement, especially when they admire their rivals’ enthusiasm and drive, according to the panellists.

Ms. Murray suggested that while a sustainable brand needs to inspire and encourage, it also needs to draw a line when it comes to IP protection.

“Sometimes our cease-and-desist letters are very friendly,” she said. “We want to be a source of innovation—but we also want to create more creativity in this space.”

Mr. Tadlock agreed, noting that IP enforcement is often a balancing act between wanting to encourage rival sustainable brands and protecting valuable IP and trademarks.

“We are here to bring people along; we want them to come with us. When enforcing our IP rights, we look at who we are dealing with and that does have an impact on how we enforce our rights,” he said.

Ms. Villa Nova Silva noted that the increased emphasis on IP enforcement posed potential problems for IP practitioners. “Sustainability depends on organizations sharing technology and knowledge. The question is: how do you balance this?” she said.

“Some brands are innovating in the way they assess their supply chains.” Simon McCalla, Sedex





Adapting to the Environment

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected how brands can ensure that supply chain partners are fulfilling their CSR obligations. Mr. McCalla explained that some brands are innovating in the way they assess their supply chains, embracing new techniques such as virtual onsite assessments.

For example, he said, they are using automated techniques to talk directly to workers.

Ms. Murray said that Toms has also found innovative ways to engage supply chain partners to ensure the continuation of ethical and sustainable ways of working.

“We’ve embraced more training, through working with factories by training them on their responsibilities and new codes of conduct and engaging them remotely even though we can’t be there,” she said.

Sustainability, brands, INTA 2020, CSR, Patagonia, supply chain, Toms Shoes, Sedex, IP protection, technology, COVID-19, pandemic, environment, trademarks