When Matt Jensen founded M.J. Bale in 2009, he wanted to create a brand grounded by a commitment to ethical sourcing, in partnership with Australia’s best farmers.
Having grown up on an Australian Merino farm, Matt was passionate about elevating locally-sourced natural fibres, while also supporting our farmers and their communities. This heritage is the very heart and soul of the M.J. Bale brand promise, and has inspired us to think about how we can support our farming partners, and by extension, support the environment on which they and all of us depend upon.
Our efforts to date have seen M.J. Bale recognised as Climate-Active Certified in 2021, Australia’s first fully carbon-neutral fashion brand and as a Sustainability Leader by the Australian Financial Review. Looking to the future, we are on track to power all our domestic operations — our stores, warehousing and support offices — with renewable energy by the end of 2022. By the end of 2023, we plan to be net carbon positive, which we will achieve by reducing carbon intensity in our supply chain and partnering with best-in-class carbon offset projects.
That said, we’re still early on in our journey and are conscious of how much more there is to accomplish. Similar to our industry-leading partners at Salesforce, we are committed to real-world progress over waiting for perfection. Committing and commencing is half the battle.
Along those lines, I often hear from industry peers looking for advice on how they can best engage their leadership teams to embrace sustainability. There’s no quick fix solution, but I’ve collected a number of lessons that I believe will help other Retail and Consumer Goods (RCG) innovators start or accelerate their sustainability plans. By sharing these lessons, I hope we can collectively progress an industry-wide momentum towards a genuinely sustainable future.
What we learnt on our journey so far
Any way you look at it, businesses have an urgent prerogative to positively contribute to climate change.
As business leaders, consumers and citizens, we wanted to do our part, regardless of the political debate of the day. Because we are creating a vision of an aspirational lifestyle — one deeply connected to celebrating the Australian outdoor lifestyle — we felt obligated to protect the environment upon which all of it depends.
Some of the ways we did this include:
- Listened to experts: We spoke to environmental scientists, green entrepreneurs, renewable technology investors and researchers. This led to us conducting a CO2e audit of our entire business ecosystem and emissions across our global supply chain.
- Offsets are not enough: From the audit, we realised that more than 50% of our CO2e emissions occurred at our Merino farms. While buying high-quality carbon offsets could quickly and simply balance our entire CO2e impact, we knew that in the long-term, offsets would not solve the problem. We needed to decarbonise as much as we possibly could and offset the rest.
- Take a scientific approach: Creating a more sustainable M.J. Bale required research and development beyond our internal expertise. We began working with Sea Forest, a Tasmanian tech start-up that leveraged CSIRO research to produce a seaweed-based supplement. When added to livestock feed, the supplement could reduce methane to undetectable levels. We began trialling the supplement on one of our long-term partner’s farms in Tasmania, called Kingston Farm. The result of this trial is the world’s first zero-emission Merino wool, with the same exceptional quality Kingston is famous for.
Resistance to change is part of human nature. Operating sustainably will require a wide- range of significant cultural, operational and financial shifts, which will inevitably encounter resistance.
One thing I’ve learned over the past few years while trying to garner enterprise-wide support for M.J. Bale’s sustainability program is that altruism simply isn’t enough. Without seeing a compelling commercial rationale, those naysayers — as frustrating as they may seem at the time — are doing their jobs.
It is up to you to position sustainability, within the context of your unique brand and business value proposition, as the competitive differentiator it needs to be. Here’s my advice on how to do this.
Create a more compelling brand narrative
Having an authentic commitment to sustainability makes your brand more appealing to consumers. Increasingly, we’re seeing how important a brand’s purpose and sustainability practices are in purchasing decisions. Being authentic and transparent about your commitment to net zero practices will help you build trust and loyalty.
For many customers, it’s no longer enough for brands to simply deliver a great product. Consumers expect you to be stewards in a more sustainable world. According to the State of the Connected Customer Report, 85% of customers say their purchase decisions are swayed by how companies treat employees, while 78% watch for environmental practices, like protecting natural resources and achieving net zero emissions. Critically, customers who engage with a brand based on shared values tend to show greater loyalty, and less price sensitivity, increasing their lifetime value.
Sustainability will make you a more attractive employer and partner
In a candidate’s market, highly-skilled employees want more than just a competitive compensation package. They expect employers to both articulate genuine convictions and have the courage to stand up for them. A yellowing ‘vision and values’ poster on the wall next to a coffee station is not even close to good enough.
In our experience, the same is true of the best business partners. They are often spoilt for choice and tend to prioritise relationships with businesses that share the same values.
Major concern for the environment is common across all demographics, especially millennials. Any business interested in attracting and retaining the best team members and business partners must have a credible pathway to sustainability.
Sustainability will help you build a more resilient business
Significant change forced upon you without preparation is often catastrophic. In the European Union, future environmental mandates are inevitable. More recently the U.S. has signalled the possibility of carbon border offset taxes. Should that happen, and sustainability is effectively mandated for businesses with global ambitions, those who have invested in organisational, operational and financial resilience ahead of the change will win.
Start identifying opportunities for decarbonisation as soon as possible. Doing so means you’ll have more time to identify the required operational shifts and secure the necessary team members and partners to carry it off, before the frenzy of competition for resources that will follow a mandated change.
And for any CO2e emissions that cannot be eliminated using existing technology, incorporate the cost of offsets into your existing financial models. That way you can ensure your financial models are robust enough to survive the true cost of sustainability.
No doubt the specifics will be different for every business. But my point is this: you must create a compelling commercial argument for your proposed program, whatever that looks like for your company.
Consider starting with a ‘trial’
Achieving genuine innovation requires an appetite for risk that many leadership teams struggle with. So start small, take a test-and-learn approach and celebrate quick successes.
Proposing an irreversible program of change that can’t accurately forecast resource commitment at the outset will be a tough sell. Instead, start with a proof of concept – one that doesn’t require an endless supply of time, money and people. And once you have that trial across the line, make it count!
Businesses like yours and ours must be the agents of change our home planet needs.
A paradigm shift is underway, one with uniquely profound implications. The challenges are enormous, but I believe the opportunities are even more so. For the first time in the history of the environmental movement, what is right for the planet is undeniably good for business, providing you with the opportunity to advocate for the necessary change on very solid commercial grounds.
Those who succeed in persuading their stakeholders to authentically commit to sustainability will enjoy the brand differentiation, impassioned team and partners, resilient business model, and social licence to own the future.