Sustainability & Business

Sustainable branding is about more than ESG goals

Founder of the Copenhagen based PR & communications firm AGENDA, Asbjørn Riis-Søndergaard, shares his take on sustainable and “fair” branding, including how it can benefit your company and why sustainable and transparent communication from companies is more important than ever.

'Fair branding' is a concept coined by the Danish PR and brand consultancy firm AGENDA. Working to strengthen brand sustainability, AGENDA works with clients such as Microshade, Celsia and Logility to help them address key global challenges through disruptive, fair communication and action, to build brand recognition and good PR that’s rooted in sustainable values. 

In this article, the founder of AGENDA, Asbjørn Riis-Søndergaard shares his take on sustainable and “fair” branding, including how it can benefit your company and why sustainable and transparent communication from companies is more important than ever.

Want to get more insights on sustainable branding? 

Sign up to watch our Masterclass with Asbjørn.  

Learn more

We live in a time where symbolism plays a central role for all of us. The world of social media is fast paced, and businesses are constantly looking to weave together a brand identity that encapsulates their values, personality and mission. 
That’s why I believe that brands have a special responsibility to provide information that’s high quality and ethically balanced. Communicating transparently shows that your business is aware of its societal impact, but at the same time it can help you develop a positive reputation in the market and make you a more attractive option for potential new hires. 


What is Fair Branding?

Fair Branding is a concept that we use a lot when we’re guiding companies on how they should integrate ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance Factors), the SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals) and sustainability into their marketing, PR and communications approaches. It’s our take on 21st century PR and communications - where we place a greater emphasis on having a social and planetary outlook. It’s about communicating in a fair and balanced way about your company’s sustainability journey, while “walking the talk” at the same time. Furthermore, it’s about communicating with more than just buzzwords, creating an honest, trustworthy brand that people can and want to relate to.


Build your brand on data, not buzzwords

When companies publish their sustainability or ESG reports, they need to be supported by credible data, certifications and realistic action plans. Claims without proof often get called out as greenwashing, which exposes your brand to criticism, and devalues all the good things that you’re doing to transform your business. Aside from the obvious reputational damage, you also risk falling foul of green marketing legislation. Versions of the Marketing Act like the one we have in Denmark are being implemented in the EU and the US to make sure that companies are not making false marketing claims or hiding essential information. Essentially, you have to be able to back up the claims that you make in your campaigns - which is fair, right?


So how do you put this into action? Here’s 3 steps to start with

Building ESG criteria into your brand is a long process, and is individual for every brand. But committing to making a difference to the way you run your company is a great place to start. By committing to a more long-term way of thinking, you will avoid any greenwashing claims because your sustainability will be firmly embedded in your company’s DNA.

How we do it:
Before advising companies how to develop their brand strategy and tone of voice, we start off by helping them create a blueprint - or as I call it, a “greenprint”. These exercises bring a lot of key pieces of information together such as the challenges they want to tackle, the trajectory they want to set, and the roadmap to get them there. 

  • Helping them understand sustainable principles and legislation
    • Getting them acquainted with the science and philosophy of becoming a more sustainable business
    • Introducing them to the current and upcoming legislation and frameworks. This could be the CSRD (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive), The SBTi (The Science Based Targets initiative), GHG Protocol, or something specific to your industry.

  • Developing a strong company DNA
    To know where you’re headed, you need to know where you come from, which is why having a strong sense of brand DNA is so important.

  • Writing a core story
    Businesses need to understand what challenges they face, and how they’re geared to solving them, which is the purpose of a core story or narrative. 


Dare to be pessimistic, open and authentic in your communication

I think there’s way too much cheerleader-speak in the communications and PR industry. The issues that companies are facing in the current climate are complex and multi-faceted, so acknowledging the challenges, mistakes and learnings towards reaching those goals should not be overlooked.  

Of course it’s hard to predict how the market will react to you showing vulnerability as a brand. As with any business decision, you run the risk of losing trust from shareholders and stakeholders if you’re seen to be falling behind on your goals, but provided your communication is constructive, solutions-oriented and hopeful for the future, it can be a rewarding approach that will build trust and show that you’re open to being transparent about the journey you’re on.


Carlsberg, the Danish brewing company, is a good example of a company that recognizes the integral role they play in society.

Their strategy “Together Towards Zero” aims to achieve:
ZERO carbon footprint, ZERO water waste, ZERO irresponsible drinking and a ZERO accidents culture by 2030.

Going beyond what is required means that they are pushing boundaries and actively driving change, and you can see the impact of this strategy throughout their business.

They actively look at their value chain and say, “let's have an open dialog with farmers in Denmark about changing the way we do agriculture, so that we can become more regenerative”, instead of waiting for the change to happen.

What I like about Carlsberg, from a Fair Branding perspective, is the way that they communicate what they do. They have a “we’re doing our best” experimenting attitude, and while pushing boundaries, they sometimes fail. They make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and talk openly about them. We saw this with the Snap Pack that they tried to introduce, which cut plastic usage by up to 76%. The result? It was a success in the UK, but the Danish consumers just didn't buy it, so now they’re experimenting with creating a Green Fibre Bottle.

This experimentation gives them a competitive edge. They understand that they have a bigger purpose than just producing alcohol - people are not just looking to just buy beer from them - they are looking for a brand that they can buy into as a whole.

Brand communication and actions have an impact

Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are sitting up and taking note, so there’s a huge risk associated with being frivolous and self-glorifying in your brand communications. Being relatable and demonstrating that you’re aware of the changing world that these customers inhabit is key if you want to win them over. And with digital education likely to play an even bigger role in the coming years, children and young people deserve nuanced storytelling from businesses that are committed to fair and responsible branding.

The age of jubilant optimism of the 90s and 20s is over, as Journalist Christian Bennike writes in the book "Once we believed in the future". Now we find ourselves in the critical age of pessimism, where the future is uncertain and the big overarching narrative is the 'crisis' or the “change”. Companies must therefore recognize the crises we’re in, and find the right tone of voice to point to solutions that create hope and inspire the world to believe that we can still achieve most of the UN's 17 Global Goals and subgoals.

Want to get more insights on sustainable branding? 

Sign up to watch our Masterclass with Asbjørn.  

Learn more



Similar posts