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As CSR Gains Popularity, how can Brands Restrategize to Truly Make a Difference?

The rise of consumer social responsibility (CSR) has had a major impact on the retail industry — especially as concerns about global warming continue to increase. Now more than ever, brands are being exposed for their lack of awareness and, in some cases, consumers are turning away from them completely.

According to an analysis by Business Insider, fashion production comprises 10% of total global carbon emissions (earth.org). Too many brands have built their business model around ever-evolving trends, otherwise known as “fast fashion,” without considering the negative long-term effect it has on the environment. And it doesn’t stop there — fast fashion is also extremely harmful from a social perspective. (sustainability.uq.edu)

When all of this is taken into consideration, it seems obvious that consumers would start to question these brands and the role they play when they’re buying products from them. While it has taken some time for consumers to catch on, we are at a turning point in the retail industry where consumers have deemed these practices simply unacceptable.

This change in consumer behavior has inspired major brands like H&M, Zara and Nike to take major steps toward being more sustainable — from pledging to cut emissions by 30% by 2030 to making promises to cut their CO2 emissions in half by the end of the decade. Unfortunately, many of these brands are still coming up short. (BrandEquity.com) We’ve also seen fast fashion brands like Shein make sustainability claims on their website and even launch a resale program, only for experts to say resale can’t override the exploitation and overconsumption in its business model. (VogueBusiness.com).

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On the other end of the spectrum, however, are brands like Patagonia. Just a few months ago, Yvon Chouinard, the CEO of Patagonia, transferred the ownership of his $3 billion company to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization to ensure that all of its profits are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe. (NYTimes.com)

While the difference between these sustainability initiatives may seem obvious, it’s actually much deeper than that. Brands like Patagonia have built a strong brand mission upon the pillars of sustainability and the importance of environmental protection, whereas brands like Shein and Zara pledge their dedication to a more sustainable future without being able to actually support their claims.

All brands should be taking a look at their current practices and finding ways to take a more sustainable approach. But they can’t just slap a statement on their website or make claims they can’t fulfill. Instead, they need to utilize a purpose-based approach while ensuring that their identity remains unique and resonates with their core audience. 

CSR can create customer loyalty gains, but its effectiveness hinges on two things: its relevance to consumers and your competitive landscape. When restrategizing your brand purpose, it’s incredibly important that relevance and authenticity is prioritized above all else. This can be achieved by adding layers of purpose to your belief system one at a time, allowing for growth to happen in an organic, honest way.

Genuine purpose can only elevate your brand, which is something that brands like Warby Parker have certainly leaned into. Warby Parker’s mission began with giving shoppers access to better eyewear for less, then they kept getting better. After more than a decade in business, they haven’t let their customers down — their name is synonymous with ‘purpose’ in their segment.

Times have changed, and brands that don’t take CSR into consideration simply won’t survive. But this doesn’t mean that every approach has to be the same. What might work for a historically environmentally-friendly brand like Patagonia won’t necessarily work for a fast-fashion brand like H&M. The key is to understand the difference and find an approach that feels authentic and attainable.


Todd Irwin is the founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Fazer, a New York-based brand strategy and creative agency. His focus is to deliver competitive brand strategies directly to the visionary leaders looking for growth. Fazer is a new-model agency championing a revolution in the agency industry by having branding experts lead marketing, advertising, digital, PR and all the other teams with the ultimate purpose of helping its clients win.

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