Storytelling for sustainability


The definition of brand storytelling is using narrative techniques to engage with an audience and shape a brand's identity beyond traditional marketing approaches. Brands tell stories to engage consumers and it’s a crucial tool in marketing. People like stories just as they express their lives in person. Brands have stories that reveal and serve as signs of their reality and meaning. Brands use storytelling to build passionate brand communities and provide their fans with a language through which the brand can be articulated to others. These stories generate emotions and figures for the simple reason that people connect with brands, build on them, and make them their own. When this happens, the brand transcends the product or object. Brands weave their stories together in a beautiful way that makes the complex simple and creates opportunities for continued growth and innovation. 

Brand storytelling is a complex process that requires understanding the customer funnel and the brand identity in the market, the brand identity and the market or context they play.  (Pereira, G. 2019; Dahlén, M., Lange, F., & Smith, T. 2009).  

Storytelling is a practice in which content (facts, information) is transformed and brought into a narrative form that we call a “story”. Stories generally have a clearly recognizable beginning, a middle and an end (chronology) (Nwoga, 2000). In addition to that, stories provide information about a distinct temporal and spatial setting in which they are located (Woodside, 2010). Storytelling can adapt to further variations in tonality, depending on whether its purpose is more convincing or deliberative. When storytelling is used to convince audiences of a particular message, it can assume a persuasive character and influence the audience with stylistic and rhetoric means. This is especially true for storytelling about moral messages (Lee & Leets, 2002), such as that employed by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, when discussing threatened species or ecosystems in nature documentaries. Overall, stories are understood as either representing reality, or as actively creating reality and helping audiences understand the world by translating ideas into the concrete experiences of story characters. Narrative structures are used in stories to allow to experience the changeability of the world: we take part in how the actions of characters influence the course of things (Früh & Frey, 2014). Stories, therefore, potentially have the power to embed us into new or unusual situations and thereby provide us with novel experiences through the proxy of the story characters. They offer us experiences we would ordinarily not be able to take part in. 

The use of storytelling to address sustainability in an education and communication context almost inevitably raises several points: 

  • Sustainability itself is a normative idea, as it refers to the “possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever” (Ehrenfeld, 2008) and to fundamental principles of inter- and intragenerational justice. To be sustainable, storytelling needs to lead to outcomes that are conducive to sustainable development. 
  • The educational setting adds a second layer of normativity to it. In a humanist tradition, education is about helping learners to better relate to the world they live in, to engage with the challenges they are facing, and to empower them to change this world for the greater good of all. In this understanding, education is built on tenets of reflexivity (our ability to take distant perspectives, reflect on ourselves and explore how we became who we are) and emancipation (our ability to act freely, to disentangle ourselves from who we have been made, and to have autonomy over our lives) (Masschelein, 2004). 

To be educational, storytelling needs to nurture the reflective and emancipatory capacity of individuals.Storytelling for sustainability (SusTelling) in this educational understanding must respect both requirements: to contribute to change towards sustainability, and to build capacity in learners to act in a self-determined, competent way. It should foster awareness, challenge assumptions, clarify values and ideas of what kind of sustainability we want and empower individuals and groups to act together. 

Storytelling for sustainability (SusTelling) is the telling of a story (Leinaweaver 2017):  

  • with a distinct arrangement of characters and courses for action (plot), 
  • which focuses on characters and their experiences (personalization) and 
  • presents a configuration of conflicts, developments, and solutions (dramaturgy), 
  • has a recognizable beginning, middle and end (chronology), 
  • provides information about the temporal, spatial or cultural setting (context), 
  • creates inner tension by employing stylistic devices (stylistics), 
  • using a distinct tone (tonality) 
  • and a more or less interactive and immersive way of presentation (modality), to facilitate the education of the audience and promote change towards sustainability (normativity). 

Both fashion (textiles) and food are identified as key value chains: This plan considers establishing common sustainability practices for the different sectors: 

  • improving product durability, reusability, upgradability and reparability. Addressing the presence of hazardous chemicals/pesticides, use of water and artificial ingredients 
  • increasing recycled content in products/ also secondary and primary packaging in food; 
  • enabling remanufacturing and high-quality recycling; 
  • reducing carbon and environmental footprints. 
  • restricting disposable packaging or non-recyclable materials 
  • incentivising natural and eco ingredients 
  • mobilising the potential of digitalisation of product information, including solutions as QR for traceability of ingredients and re-usable packaging materials 

In the EU, food is the first industry in the use of raw materials (1,600 Million Tn/year), and textiles is the fifth (including also household textiles) with 175 Million Tn/year; food is the first in water use, and textiles is the third; the same positions related to the land use; and first and fifth position respectively in the Greenhouse gas emissions (EEA, 2022). 

Both sectors share some practices to shift to a circular economy: organic production, km0 sourcing, packaging 0; business models based on offering services instead of ownership, etc. And both share a concern on the waste they generate: an estimated 20% of the total food produced is lost or wasted in the UE (European Commission, 2019:15), while more than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling (Ellen MacArthur, 2017) 

The food sector has successfully positioned sustainable food as addressing consumer benefits, as well as wider societal implications (Centre for Sustainable Fashion, 2009) through raising awareness of sustainable concepts, such as: food-miles; food produced without chemical applications that pollute the soil; and negotiations between food producers and multi-national organisations. 

Therefore, there is connection about how consumers transfer concepts of sustainability, such as organic, Fairtrade and carbon emissions, from the context of food to fashion. (Ritch 2015).  

Analogies between the two industries: 

  • Green Stickers. 

Labelling is one of the obvious areas in which food products are miles ahead in the race for sustainability. Offering consumers, a clear and simple way of discerning which foods are vegan, locally grown or organic, the traffic light system of nutritional information sits alongside strict regulations on ingredients and packaging recycling instructions. These all help demystify the complex food supply chain. 

  • Farm to fork, earth to skirt. 

Beyond regulation, perhaps the biggest lesson fashion can learn from food is the importance of building a close relationship with raw materials. Increasingly, we are curious about where food comes from and how it’s made, but this doesn't seem to be the case with what we wear—perhaps this discrepancy is because we regularly cook our own food but rarely make our own clothes. The farm-to-table and slow food movements can be almost directly transposed to the fashion industry. Through educating consumers on provenance and taking the time to appreciate the ‘ingredients’ of our clothes, slow fashion could see a similar revolution. 

Fashion can look to the food industry for inspiration and influence in becoming more transparent and sustainable. Providing resources and support to suppliers and changing the marketing around sustainable options are two lessons fashion can learn from food. Even the food industry’s missed opportunities — like lifting up those most negatively impacted in the supply chain — offer insight. 


Dahlén, M., Lange, F., & Smith, T. (2009). Marketing communications: A brand narrative approach. John Wiley & Sons 

Leinaweaver, J. (2017). Storytelling for sustainability: Deepening the case for change. Routledge. 

Milner-Gulland, E. J., Addison, P., Arlidge, W. N., Baker, J., Booth, H., Brooks, T., ... & Watson, J. E. (2021). Four steps for the Earth: mainstreaming the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. One Earth, 4(1), 75-87. 

Pereira, G. (2019). Brand storytelling: A three-dimensional perspective. Journal of Brand Strategy, 8(2), 146-159. 

Ritch, E. L. (2015). Consumers interpreting sustainability: moving beyond food to fashion. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 43(12), 1162-1181.