Lessons from LinkedIn MBA Arena Employer Panel on Sustainability with J.Walter Thompson, Marks&Spencer, Accenture and Unilever (London, UK) 

If there was one common thread that draws the companies at the panel together it is their ability to influence the behaviour of end consumers through their marketing and strategy. Whether as an advertiser, food and fashion retailer, consultant to some of the biggest companies in the world, or as one of those giant multinationals, our representatives have a massive influence over the behaviour of consumers in developed and emerging economies.

So how are these companies seeing ‘sustainability’ today and tomorrow, and what are the main challenges to them achieving their goals? Through our discussion, I saw a number of key trends and themes emerge. These included the importance of collaboration and collective action (scaling for partnership), the growing demand for transparency of operations from key stakeholders and the changing consumer trends with the evolving generational demands.

Collaboration and Scaling for Partnership

For me, this was one of the most insightful learnings from the night. It is easy to give up on trying to put right the current work systems (supply chains, marketing etc) given the reluctance of consumers and the media to buy in to your vision of change. It is very easy to label you as insincere the minute you start on a program of change. The term ‘greenwashing’ is of course the darling child of the media and a lot of times it is hard to justify the spend on improving suppliers, reducing carbon footprint if there is no visible reaction from the external stakeholders. One solution for this is the emergence of firm-agnostic groups that help build up a more believable story for your consumers. If mistrust is engendered by the antics of individual brands then a collective of brands across different industries embodies solidarity with the cause of a sustainable future. This is when sustainability is measured not with fanfare but like ‘grown-up business’, with real world KPIs that different members of the group aspire to, and indeed in time, insist on.

 Growing demand for transparency

Traceability and transparency of supply chains is becoming more and more vital, with numerous start-ups springing up to help end customers investigate where their purchases are coming from. Here collaboration can go a long way to cutting the costs of making this information available. It also instills a need for companies like the Unilevers and Marks and Spencers of this world to always know and manage all the actors within their supply chains.

Changing Consumer Trends

The big opportunity for shaping the next generation of consumers comes with the consumer preferences of the Millennials generation. We heard that Millennials seem more likely to insist that a brand embed ‘sustainable living’ within its ethos. The signals are of a new generation of consumer that understands scarcity and the need for each individual to take responsibility for what they demand.

We were left with an interesting set of ideas about the future of marketing, advertising and consumer goods in general. We also reflected during the Q&A on the employees within a big company and how to get their buy-in when you consider that changing strategies affects not just the investment of the shareholders but the jobs, and ultimately livelihoods of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. Just one more thing to consider when thinking about changing the world.