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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

How brands can restore nature

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

We forgot not just who we were, but where we were

The past year or so has been like waking from a dream. Once we started building the Good Growth Company we began to realise that pretty much everything we'd been taught - about economics and brands - was wrong.

Good Growth means human wellbeing integrated with the health of the planet. Living with nature, not from it.

The Good Growth system requires a reordering of priorities - relegating pursuit of profit (and scale) to a supporting role in the big game, the challenge of integrating human wellbeing with the health of the planet.

For far too long the system we humans have developed for ourselves - irrespective of whether it got labelled as capitalist or communist or something in between - has pursued human wellbeing in a way that is disconnected from nature.

We became compelled to extract - as producers and as consumers our system is hardwired for "more" - more stuff at lower prices, more volume at lower input. The moment we viewed the world through industrial eyes - as a supply chain with raw materials at one end and value added products at the other - was the same moment we severed our relationship with nature.

But we did not notice.

We forgot about place

We moved our work out of homes and into factories. What had been done by hand was done by machine. Pursuit of economies of scale became a game without end. Globalisation prized efficiency of supply chain (a euphemism for low cost) and cared not one jot where stuff came from.

The same thing happened in the Capitalist west and the Communist east. Industrialisation severed the connection to place and recast humans as in a machine.

"Under Soviet rule, weaving families...joined the masses in collectivised co-operatives, or left their profession entirely. Weaving skills were lost under pressure from Moscow to mechanise and economise" - Caroline Eden, in (the excellent) Red Sands, writing about the artisans of East Uzbekistan.

Each step taking us further from places, and further from nature.

Until we came to live in a world where we were fully disconnected from places to become consumers and producers.

What mattered above all was the product and how much it cost. Where it came from and how it got there was subsumed in the pursuit of efficient supply chains.

And brands - which used to be a symbol of origin - changed to be primarily about consumers and products, about "growth" in the economic sense.

This is a slide we (I) regularly used with clients to spell out how brands drove bottom line

This aberration subordinates brands to nothing more than a means to a financial end, brand merely as a mechanism to drive profit. And despite having peddled this professionally for a decade or more I now have to confess that it is a corruption.

Place really matters - especially if we want to restore nature

Place is a powerful concept.

Place binds us together. In these pandemic times many of us have been forcefully reminded that what we share is the place we live. And that our wellbeing is bound up with the wellbeing of that place.

(If you want to see what a shared love of place can do to unite a community check out the Isle of Bute and what's happened since the Syrian refugees arrived. Or the work of Sergei Shubin in Cardiff on the relationship between geography and the integration of migrants.)

Restoring nature - and doing so in a systematic way - requires us to revive the concept of place and put it back where it belongs. Not something to be obscured in an opaque cost-myopic supply chain but as the force that binds human communities to nature.

It is - when you stop to think about it - impossible to get to any kind of sustainable way of living on this planet unless we become much more aware and connected to the specific contexts and needs of each place.

Places are not the same. The natural balance in each place is not the same. What is sustainable in one place is not the same as what is sustainable in another.

This simple yet utterly forgotten fact makes a nonsense out of all our attempts to create "sustainable" standards for products. You cannot standardize sustainability. Yet our industrialised selves cannot help but try.

Instead of trying to integrate nature into our globalised supply chains we need to realise that we need to integrate the way we do business into nature.

And that means recognising the importance of place - and the imperative to restore and enhance the health of each place.

Brands as expression of origin - time for the revival

The Mongolians used brands on horses. They have done hundreds of years. The symbol signified where the horse came from and who had reared it. Over centuries these symbols persisted (and still persist to this day) to communicate the relationship between the producer and place.

Not an expression of product and consumer, but of producer and place.

An expression of origin.

We used to know where stuff came from. It used to matter. But somewhere along the line we lost our way.

Across pretty much every category you can think of "origin" has got lost. In clothing it is almost impossible to find out where the fibre came from before it got to the factory.

The exception to this is wine (and some food - like cheese). Wine is pretty much all about story of origin. With the exception of the mega industrial brands there is an explicit understanding that the wine comes from place X, and that there is only so much of it to be had. Scarcity and place are central.

Teliani Valley is a place (OK, more of a plain than a valley but that's a translation thing)

If anything wine should make much more of place - the story behind wine is one of passion between people and the place where the vines grow. The health of the place and the prospects of the winemakers are intertwined.

The wine is made in a way which helps them to look after that place.

It is this kind of symbiotic story that we need now to weave (literally sometimes - check out Prickly Thistle) into other products that are restorative of nature.

Places, people and products - the new role for brands in the regenerative world

We have written about the necessity to reintegrate humans - and human wellbeing - into the places where they live. That means tackling not just the economic incentives that drive producers to become extractors, but also the timespan for enterprises and above all the degree to which we humans identify with our natural environment. (We are wired to believe that we're not only "other" from nature but above it).

Every place is different. Every place has its own story. Each of those stories weaves a rich tapestry - of the natural environment in the place, and all the wonderful life that lives in each place. Above all each story can tell of people's love for the place and what they do to make it healthy - the regenerative story.

So we are now creating not just place brands, but place brand companies that can act as the vehicles of integration. Community owned, these entities own the regeneration story of the place, carrying that story through as the central pillar of the final product. The business aligns and integrates the needs of the place (restore nature) with the needs of the people in the place (wellbeing).

This transforms (say) the herders in the Chigertei valley from transactional sellers of raw materials to the centre of the end product story. The place brand company earns from the final sale of product - which completely changes the pricing dynamics.

The stronger the regeneration story the stronger the brand.

Reconnecting products to place is the job for brands and brand strategy now - done well it will restore human relationships to nature and give us a shot at combatting climate change and species extinction.

But to continue to conceive of brands as mechanisms to flog stuff with no provenance would be to perpetuate the great mistake.

We in the brand world have a lot of atonement ahead of us - time to start paying.

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