As the importance of sustainability becomes more apparent with each passing moment, brands and consumers alike are working to make more conscious choices. But that’s not easy to do when every choice has a tradeoff to consider.

Eric Wilmanns, advisor to Bluebird and environmental expert who helped pioneer Patagonia’s environmental assessment program, has decades of experience in considering these tradeoffs. He’s seen the evolution of brands working on sustainability from when it was just a niche practice to today's world in which it’s an important component of most businesses. Here are some of his thoughts for brands who are just getting started.

What do you think brands today should think about as they get started in working towards sustainability?

They should look individually at what they’re making and do a deep dive analysis. Consider what they have control over from a design level, because some brands have more freedom for what they can do based on what their products are designed to do.

Carbon accounting is part of any strategy being designed for sustainability. However, I would emphasize the importance of developing a more holistic program and not just focusing on carbon. Even if their sole metric is looking at carbon, they can still take a qualitative look at other processes, like toxins or water use.

What kind of challenges might brands starting to work on sustainability face?

Having a sustainability person or program is becoming kind of business as usual. But it’s still a challenge to explain (especially with public companies to stockholders) how you’re being fiduciarily responsible by having these teams, which can look like a loss on paper. Private companies are a lot easier because they have a mandate from the owners. It’s their personal decision and not a decision they have to run by board members.

That said, I find it interesting that in 20 years we’ve gone from buying copy paper with recycled content to today where nearly 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a Chief Sustainability Office.

How can brands measure success – or at least improvement?

Let’s use cars as an analogy. Currently, we measure a car by its gas mileage. (We can also measure carbon dioxide per mile.) While there are hybrids out there getting really great gas mileage, it’s still not great if the cars are only riding one person at a time. In this case, what we should really be looking at is carbon dioxide per passenger mile.

In other words, look at the impact per use. So for a coffee cup,  it’s not just about creating an insulated coffee cup. It’s measuring what impacts it took to manufacture it to how long the cup can last, then comparing that total impact to a single-use coffee cup. The goal is a coffee cup that has impacts that go down on a per-use basis.

What do you think is the future for brands working towards lowering their impact?

My crystal ball is that carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions will stay on the front burner. But moving to the forefront are circular economies, circular markets, and products that can exist in them.

However, a lot of people are looking at packaging first, and there are many reasons for that. For one, packaging is easy to study — the numbers are all out there. Packaging is also something that everyone comes in contact with. Finally, it’s something you can control and that can be changed rapidly.

Meanwhile, my hope is that in a few years we’ll have a better feel for what’s being put in the box as well, not just focusing on the box itself. Looking at packaging is a first step and things are starting to move in the right direction. But it’s going to take awhile to get to the next steps.

What do you think the future should be as brands work towards lowering their impact?

I hope in the future that the word “sustainable” continues to progress and become more accurate. I also hope that the focus of what is sustainable moves towards entire business systems.

So, items that are getting tagged with the word “sustainable” start to move away from just the SKU of that item to the entire supply chain and network — to everything from the raw materials to the end of life for that product. In other words, a whole systems approach, not only a focus on individual items.