These days it seems that every major consumer brand has in some way leapt to present itself as a positive player in the climate crisis. Brands promise to reach net zero emissions, eliminate waste, and rebuild forests around the world. Although admirable intentions, when you look into the details of what brands are actually doing, it’s often unclear whether these actions will be sufficient to deliver the promises made. While this is problematic, what I’m especially interested in is what brands are doing to change the behaviours of their consumers. It’s one thing for a big company to manage its supply chain and operations differently. But how can a brand apply its branding power to encourage others to take positive climate action?
Going Beyond Green Operations
To be specific, I don’t mean using brand capabilities to convince people to buy products and services with a smaller carbon footprint. That can have a positive impact, but it’s not realising the full potential of brands to change the world. It asks nothing of consumers: just keep buying from us, and we’ll take care of the climate crisis for you.
The climate emergency is the defining global crisis of our time, and we need all hands on deck to tackle it. While we must adopt a multi-sectoral approach as well as limit consumerism, we also need brand marketers to help trigger changes in our collective behaviours. Previous substacks have described brands using their expertise to reduce alcohol abuse, period poverty, and anaemia, as well as promote vaccination and hygiene in the fight against Covid-19. Why not encourage consumers to work against climate change as well?
To take an extreme example, back in 2011 the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia created a bold advertisement that pictured one of the company’s products along with the slogan, “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. Instead, the ad urged readers to make their current jacket last longer by cleaning or repairing it. The ad appeared in the New York Times on “Black Friday,” the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. Patagonia used this key advertising opportunity to educate consumers on the environmental burden of purchasing clothing, and encouraged them to choose durable, high-quality products wherever possible.
Most brands are wary of going that far, and instead currently opt for the feel-good, ‘safe’ approach (in terms of protecting short term sales) of moving their own operations towards carbon neutrality. However, there are a few brands that I’ve come across that are promoting behaviour change that might actually help to limit unnecessary consumerism.
Marketing for Global Change
BT, formerly known as British Telecom, has gone beyond positive climate action internally through its “BT Big Sofa Summit.” The company developed a guide for British households looking to reduce their energy consumption. Yes, the guide included links to “smart tech” products from BT’s online shop, but most of the advice had nothing to do with BT offerings. This impact was accelerated when the company’s brand marketers got involved and promoted the practice with entertaining videos of diverse households holding their summits. That’s the kind of outreach and creativity we need.
Going further, the Swedish fintech startup Doconomy partnered with Mastercard in 2019 to help consumers track, understand, and reduce their CO2 footprints through carbon offsetting. Unlike “green” credit cards that merely donate a percentage of purchases to environmental causes, the DO card and associated app nudges consumers towards more sustainable behaviours. A year later, for committed consumers, Doconomy released the premium “Do Black” card, which actually puts a limit on carbon consumption. If your purchases add up to exceeding your emission goals (set relative to world climate agreements), then the card declines the purchase as if you had hit your credit limit. The brand supports this bold stance with inspiring videos and a powerful tagline: “For years, credit cards put a limit on our spending. Do Black puts a limit on our impact.”
Marketers can change behaviours indirectly too. Check out the fascinating “digital clothing collection” of Carlings, the Norwegian fashion house. Its “adDress the Future” line is digital only, merely licensing the online use rights, not selling physical items. It targets online influencers who would otherwise buy many garments to make every appearance fresh – so they’re never being seen in the same item twice. Consumers can work with Carlings software to adapt a selected style to a photo they supply, and the resulting image looks quite realistic. This clever offering, bolstered by videos and social media outreach may never be more than a niche line, but the “cool factor” ensures widespread awareness and nudges online users to be more conscious of their clothing purchases.
Net Positive, the new book by former Unilever CEO Paul Polman and Andrew Winston, calls for companies to lead society in addressing the climate crisis and other global challenges. One way to do that is to nudge consumers towards climate-friendly behaviours. It’s not enough for companies to improve their own operations. They need to advocate widely, holding powerful people and companies to account, while helping broader society make more climate-positive choices.
Brand marketers are the experts in changing people’s behaviours. Now is the time for them to apply their energy and creativity to one of the most urgent purposes of all.