Building a leadership position: Our work with the Cotton LEADS program
I was recently in a meeting with a trade association, collaborating to define its sustainability positioning. During our conversations, the fact that we’re working with the Cotton LEADS program in a similar way came up. Someone in attendance said, “Cotton? What do they have to worry about?”
I could totally see where the guy was coming from. Cotton is a natural fiber that is grown by farmers with the key ingredients of sunshine and water. So what do they have to worry about?
Well, if you follow sustainability, you know that cotton has actually come under quite a bit of scrutiny. Issues around worker’s rights, pesticides and water footprint have been the central points of discussion. The Cotton LEADS program partners with companies to help them better understand the good things being done on cotton farms and to help them actively support sustainably grown cotton. Our client tasked us with helping them craft communications that thoughtfully address those common concerns plus a lot more.
A challenge we all face
The fact of the matter, however, is that this is not a challenge unique to cotton. It’s a challenge the entire supply chain, across all industries, is facing. People at the end of the chain (buyers, retailers and consumers) are demanding more and more loudly to know what companies are doing about sustainability. If you haven’t been feeling the pressure, it’s just a matter of time.
Here’s a little free advice (yes, it’s overtly self-serving but nonetheless true): when buyers, retailers and consumers come looking for your sustainability story, a few paragraphs buried deep in your website will not suffice. When it comes to sustainability, people want more than a checked box. They want leadership.
Creating recognition for leadership
Cotton LEADS is actually a great case study in building a sustainability leadership position through a two-pronged approach that all industries can follow:
- Prong 1: create a way for Cotton LEADS to tell its own story (which is also the story of the U.S. cotton industry)
- Prong 2: create a way for Cotton LEADS to help partners tell their own stories (the stories of companies that are actively supporting sustainably grown cotton)
The first step was to clearly, concisely reimagine how the program describes itself and invites partners to engage. We crafted the line “Committed to cotton. Committed to good” to capture the program’s value proposition … and also give partners a new way to think about how this program fits into their own sustainability story. (For instance, we recommended putting the messaging on point of sale materials for retail partners to use.)
We brought this value proposition to life for Cotton LEADS through a combination of assets including a new website, a trade advertising campaign and videos. Our series of partner profile videos bridges the two prongs I mentioned above: they tell the Cotton LEADS story by telling the partners’ stories.
We actually spoke with several brands for these videos that, outside of the sustainability sphere, are cutthroat competitors. Cotton LEADS firmly believes that sustainability isn’t something to compete on or keep secrets about, and the fact that they can work closely with all of these brands is testament to their leadership across the entire textile industry. It also shows valuable leadership on the part of the brands who are willing to come together in the service of the greater good. Again, that’s something all brands can emulate. You may have many competitors, but we only have one planet.
So, you’re not a trade organization …
And maybe your mission isn’t explicitly about sustainability. But your service or product is meant to help someone do something or be something better … and you’ve been reading our blog posts and research and want to tell your sustainability story. Here’s a quick breakdown of how this could apply to you:
- Integrate your sustainability story into your overall story – starting with your actions and ending with your words.
- Once you’ve done that, help your customers or consumers see how your products/services strengthen or validate their own sustainability story. (If you do this first, it will likely ring hollow.)
- Collaborate with your suppliers, customers, trade organizations, etc., to help integrate sustainability into your supply chain. This kind of leadership is a powerful sustainability story to tell.
So, what does cotton have to worry about? How to handle the same kind of pressure your industry is likely feeling. But that pressure isn’t a bad thing. It’s an opportunity to improve products, services and brand leadership – and, of course, our world.