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Postcards from the Edge

by Jim Heathman

Once little more than a few boring pages buried in the back of a company’s annual report, supply chain sustainability is now a red-hot C-suite issue. Customers care and are vocal. Operations cares. CSR and Communications care.

So how do organizations talk about it? How is the insider language and issues around procurement and personnel and manufacturing processes externalized? How do companies get stakeholder audiences — inside and out — to understand the issues and connect with their sustainability efforts positively? We poked around. And one thing is clear …

Sustainability stories can get complex — fast

A few years ago, apparel industry executive, Jahn Tracy was in Bangladesh, flying from the capital to the manufacturing city of Chittagong to visit a vendor’s factory.

On the plane he struck up a conversation with foreign aid workers who, on learning he was in the fashion industry, stated flatly, “You know, the whole Western perception of child labor is not really the best perception.” At least not when looking at the reality in Bangladesh.

Wait. What? Were these veteran foreign aid workers advocating against child labor laws and compliance? Not exactly.

Tracy, now a Director of Technical Design at Amazon, explains. “Having been on the ground, I can tell you — if children in an impoverished country like Bangladesh stay home while their mothers go to the factory to work, they are at much higher risk of molestation and abuse of all kinds.” Kids in a factory learn a skill. They are safer. They often get clothing and basic educational benefits. And they get health care. “It can actually be safer for the kids to be working in the factory even though we, of course, consider it a problem.”

Yeeesh. Talk about complex. That’s not exactly Instagram-ready brand material.

But Tracy shares this story precisely to illustrate the complexity of telling almost any story around supply chain sustainability fully. Even with a slam-dunk like child labor, Tracy suggests we can’t apply our standards to the Developing World without at least first acknowledging that the story may be more complicated than our privilege wants to make it.

Thankfully, there’s a well-regulated compliance industry dedicated to ensuring company supply chains are staying on the straight and narrow. But where does that leave brand communicators?

Getting “radically” honest

If you’re looking to tell relevant stories around sustainability — lesson one may be to check your privilege, know your brand’s POV without question, tap your values. And go from there. So, who does that well?

In the Apparel industry, Tracy gives a shout out to Everlane as a standout for clear, straightforward, customer-facing communications around supply chain sustainability. They go deep into the manufacturing process but keep the message tight and human-centered.

“They take you down into the weeds and really talk about the process. How much water they saved. How they’re capturing the toxins out of the process before they release the remaining water. It takes the customer right in.” says Tracy.

With rich photography and crisp text that shamelessly geeks-out on process, Everlane gives site visitors what Tracy calls a true vision of the end-to-end product cycle. “You get to go see the whole manufacturing process. It puts you there. ‘oh, that’s the factory where they made it.’” These little moments reinforce connection between people and the product. Potential customers know intimately where they’re buying from, complete with the factory profile. It builds trust. And mutual accountability. And that makes a real difference, especially to younger shoppers, Tracy says.

Everlane’s deep dive journey into their supply chain is a natural fit with their lean business model of offering a select amount of high-quality products. It also aligns with their core mission to sell clothing with transparent pricing. What they call Radical Transparency. And maybe that’s another point for communicators.

If everybody is watching anyway, why not aim for honesty, even radical transparency?

Knowing your brand truth

Of course Nike — masters of modern brand comms that they are — make supply chain sustainability stories look like a night at Coachella. Lots of gorgeous photography and action. And all at a pace that’s just a little bit breathless. But also with clear, concise writing and an unwavering focus on equity and social justice.

That focus on social justice as a sustainability issue is exactly what sets Nike apart from most conversations about supply chain management today — even now after George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and Me Too. And that’s because when talking about their company’s own supply chain sustainability efforts, too often, brand communicators turn to the relatively lower-hanging fruit of the environment or going green.

For Charcy Evers, a trend analyst and social impact strategist who advises the financial sector on consumer trends, good brand storytelling like that of Nike begins with thinking less about ‘getting it right’ and more about who you are and what you stand for. “Sustainability and social impact are not trends to be worked into a communications strategy in response to the zeitgeist,” says Evers, “But rather, cultural shifts that need to be in the DNA.”

If sustainability and social justice aren’t part of what your brand is about, says Evers, you need to address it. And quickly find ways to incorporate these big cultural issues that make sense for your particular business and industry. “It’s all about transparency and honesty,” she says. “The worst thing a company can do is avoid or greenwash.”

By heeding Ever’s advice to engage even when your company isn’t exactly where it needs to be on all issues, brand communicators are better equipped to handle crises when they come — and turn them into opportunities.

Take the journey of retailer Gap for instance. The company got a rightly deserved PR black eye in the mid aughts when reports surfaced that children were working in some of their factories in India. Rather than hide, they made deep changes in how they enforced compliance, and perhaps as importantly, created programs to support people in the communities where they have factories worldwide.

Today, those programs help a lot of people, but they also allow Gap to tell strong corporate social responsibility stories, like when earlier this year in advance of International Women’s Day, Gap announced that 500,000 girls and women had completed its signature education and life skills training program. That program, now in 17 countries, was created for women working in the apparel supply chain and began in response to the child labor scandal in India in 2007.

The point isn’t to make lemonade when life hands you lemons. It’s to get out of the lemonade business altogether. To get out of the sales mindset and into the service mindset. And keep talking about how you are going to do it. Why you are going to do it. And where you are heading all along the way. Even when your efforts are still a work in progress.

The point isn’t to make lemonade when life hands you lemons. It’s to get out of the lemonade business altogether.

Expanding language and going deeper

It’s clear that for brand storytelling to have impact, communicators have to go beyond what’s easy. But Evers says organizations often get it wrong when talking about supply chain sustainability simply because they focus too narrowly, ignoring the bigger issues entirely.

“You have to ask yourself ‘what supply chain sustainability, are you talking about?’,” says Evers. Meeting demand and agility? Environmental issues and impact?  Workers comp and treatment?“People tend to use the term ‘sustainability’ literally, as in is it sustainable?, or, within the context of environmental issues only — but it really has much broader implications,” she says.

Rachael Grochowski, founder at RHG Architecture + Design, agrees that limiting language can put brand narratives around supply chain sustainability at risk of missing the point altogether. And like Evers, she insists we have to look deeper.

“It’s slow in coming. But there are new organizations in the architecture and design industry that are pushing for sustainability to be about more than just materiality or building systems,” she says. For these organizations and for Grochowski, “Sustainability has to be about the human experience. So it’s not just indoor air quality, avoiding dangerous chemicals, or using trees that regenerate quickly,” says Grochowski. “It’s also about everyday human things. How people live. Is there somewhere to park your bike? Is there a fitness area in the building? Are there local food sources close by?“

Everyday human things. That’s a good north star for design for Grochowski. But it’s also a good guide for brand storytelling. How do people actually live? How do they engage with the narratives you tell? Is there a disconnect in the things you say and do, between your content and your organization?

As Growchowski points out, even when communicators want to tell broader stories, they don’t always hit their mark. “The other day I saw an article about equity and justice in architecture in a major trade magazine, and the only two people interviewed were two white men,” she says, pausing for emphasis.“While I know they had done research and work in the area of equity and justice in architecture, I was left wondering, how much value does this article actually have if they aren’t showing collective voices?”

As a brand communicator for her own firm, what interests Grochowski most right now is the idea of talking about Wellness that applies equally to everybody. “The narrative that I’m trying to share is that collective care and wellness are really partners to the pursuit of sustainability. ”

For Grochowski, wellness is about “who’s at the table.” It’s about diversity in hiring, sourcing materials that are more sustainable, making sure she works with diverse vendors and contractors who may not have the same opportunities. “My understanding of collective care and wellness comes from the idea of sustainability. It comes from my wellness world. My yoga world. My spiritual world. And the social justice world.” She calls it a collaboration that informs both her design and the way she communicates her brand’s messaging.

My understanding of collective care and wellness comes from the idea of sustainability. It comes from my wellness world. My yoga world. My spiritual world. And the social justice world.

Curiously, Grochowski ends her thoughts on supply chain sustainability stories with her own appeal for radical transparency. “If I believe something about social justice and sustainability, am I applying those to my personal life? Am I applying them to my business?” she asks rhetorically.  “Because if not, they’re just words. We have to understand our own truth. And be honest about it.” And that’s good advice for brands big and small. 

Mental mind shifts & forcing mechanisms

Another tool for brand communicators looking to tell better supply chain stories is to get back to basics. Who is your audience? And what do they want? If you’re always writing stories with the CEO on your shoulder whispering about the bottom line, maybe you’ve lost focus. What does your audience need? What do they want to hear? What serves them best? Because when you truly solve that, then your content marketing becomes transformative and impacts everything in your company culture, including the bottom line.

“Sometimes looking to what audiences really want and doing a little mental mind shift can lead to new ways of working,” says Tracy. He’s speaking about his world of design, but it applies to communications as well.

Tracy explains how the fashion industry has long lived on its ability to test and feel samples in person. The “hand feel” of a garment being critical to whether an item sells or not. The pandemic made in-person meetings and the reliance on samples, if not obsolete, certainly diminished. But in response, he says, the industry is seeing unprecedented innovation in things like the use of 3D imaging, that captures how fabric drapes and even applies a quantitative score to the qualitative idea of “hand feel.” Tracy says the fashion industry is also seeing innovation in process as evidenced by the rise of fast fashion platforms like Amazon’s The Drop.

Offering a completely different business model for the retail world, the Drop works with influencers to create fashion lines of limited, high-quality products. And they actually get pre-orders before they manufacture. With influencers being part of the product process for the Drop, it’s not surprising that story is inherent to the model as well. For the Drop and other fast-fashion retailers, sustainability — and even the supply chain itself — become a key selling point in messaging.

Today we see a younger generation who care much more about sustainability. They want to buy less. Buy upcycled products. They don’t want to contribute to what Tracy calls “the whole fashion cycle of  buy it, wear it, throw it out.” So, Amazon’s The drop is not just a business model, but a business model that takes sustainability storytelling right into its marketing.

Good or bad. These forcing mechanisms are pushing us to do something differently. These hard, serious situations are driving actual positive change.

It’s another way to minimize waste and be smarter about how we do things,” says Tracy. “Instead of having a rack of items in the back of a store waiting to be marked down or thrown out in the landfill.”

Maybe for brand communicators of any stripe telling good supply chain stories comes back to embracing what Tracy calls the “forcing mechanisms” at play in today’s market. The pandemic. The political cycle. The economy. Black Lives Matter protests. Being apart from the office. Working from home. Feel free to add your own.

“Good or bad. These forcing mechanisms are pushing us to do something differently. These hard, serious situations are driving actual positive change.” Tracy says. “We don’t have that perception on it now, but we’ll look back and say that was a pivotal moment that we all dreaded to go through, but we’re emerging on the other side with all these wins.’ Wins in innovation. In sustainability. In hiring for diversity and inclusion.”

As brand communicators, we’re the gatekeepers of content. We hold the mic, the camera, the pen so to speak. In the narratives we create — especially for the highly influential brands we represent  —it’s on us to include every voice in the conversation, to serve our audiences, to expand our notion of what “the story” is about (even when it gets uncomfortable), and advocate for a little radical honesty now and then.

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