“What if…?“ It’s a provocative question because it stretches our minds. But the bigger challenge is taking action - which may be why, despite the ongoing rhetoric and good intentions on improving societal issues such as gender equality and sustainability, progress continues to be glacially slow.

Take gender equality. It’s common sense that there should be equality between women and men in representation, roles, voice, pay and respect. But in reality, it isn’t equal. Chronic gender gaps persist in health, education, pay, economic participation and representation. And the gaps are even more pronounced among women of color, women who identify as LGBTQ and women with disabilities.

Or take sustainability. The problems are well known: climate change; ocean plastic; the clean water crisis; landfill waste; greenhouse gases; and the accompanying social issues. Yet there is a chronic ‘intention to action’ gap; more than 65% of people say they want to do something for a sustainable future, but when asked what they do, there is a big drop to less than 30% who actually take action.

Equality and sustainability are pervasive problems, created over generations, and must be solved through both individual and collective action. So, what if brands – arguably the most pervasive forces in the world for business growth – could also be used as a force for good? Brands are ubiquitous. They touch people every day, often multiple times. Imagine the impact if all brands stepped up to be both a force for good AND a force for growth.

The time is right, because people want to know what brands believe in, the people behind them, their values and views, and the actions they are taking on important societal issues.

What if brands could promote gender equality?

Gender equality is limited by gender bias. The images, attitudes and portrayals of people in advertising and media affect our perceptions because they embed memories that in turn, form bias. What if every brand used its reach and voice in advertising to eliminate bias by accurately and positively portraying women and girls – of all races, sexualities, abilities and cultures – to eliminate stereotypes, promote conversations, influence attitudes and change behaviour? For example, skincare brand Olay defies judgments that women are “too ambitious”, “too emotional”, “or “too anything”, and instead states they should live “fearless to face anything”. Beauty brand SK-II, meanwhile, rejects the notion that women have an “expiry date” that defines when they are expected to live up to societal expectations. The detergent brand Ariel demonstrates that gender equality means having men “share the load” when it comes to doing household work. And in a new video, razor brand Gillette challenges men to ditch toxic masculinity, and to move from passive inaction into becoming role models for positive action.

What if brands could drive sustainable behaviour?

Sustainable behaviours are limited by human nature because people don’t easily change their habits. What if brands made it easy to consume products responsibly merely by using them? For example, Tide and Ariel partnered with Dupont to design formulas to clean clothes in cold wash conditions, lowering energy usage. Switching to cold wash cleaning for a year can save enough energy to charge your mobile phone for a lifetime. Our Terracycle and Suez partners developed a way to turn beach plastic into shampoo bottles. We’ve applied the technology to Head & Shoulders and will convert 25% of all European shampoo bottles to post-consumer-recycled plastic. That could eliminate 2,600 tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s equal to the weight of 17 blue whales, which are what really belong in the ocean.

Each individual effort makes a difference but what if all brands joined forces to collaborate? It’s possible. The Association of National Advertisers’ #SeeHer movement and UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance promote gender equality through accurate and positive portrayals of women and girls in advertising and media. The #FreetheBid pledge promotes gender equality behind the camera by hiring more women directors for commercial and content production. The Sustainable Brands #BrandsForGood collaboration promotes sustainable behavior through responsible consumption. Hundreds of brands representing 10% of advertising spending have already joined these efforts. Imagine the impact if all brands took part.

Brands affect nearly every person on the planet, every day. Let’s inspire all brands to be agents of change on gender equality and sustainability – individually and collectively – as a powerful force for good, and for growth.