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How do you solve a problem like... finding new ways to talk about sustainability?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

December 1, 2020 | 12 min read

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum, from brands, agencies and everything in between, for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, they tell us how brands can cut through the sustainability noise.

Even with pandemics, recessions and presidential elections competing for eyeballs, sustainability is never far from the news agenda these days. In just the last week, Diageo announced a 10-year sustainability plan, while broadcaster ITV unveiled a new campaign touting its environmentally sensitive production methods replete with visions of a catastrophe-hit Corrie.

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Readers offer their solutions to ensuring cut-through with environmental messaging

But brands hoping their environmental policies will polish up their public image have to deal with a consumer public that considers sustainability plans and conscious production to be table stakes.

So, how do you manage to cut-through with new messages about your sustainability efforts and make sure concerned consumers know you’re doing your bit?

How do you solve a problem like... finding new ways to talk about sustainability?

tad greenough

Tad Greenough, chief creative officer, Absolut Vodka

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In order to cut through the noise and be more relevant to consumers, brands need to realise it’s not just about sustainability – it’s about a broader sense of responsibility. When it comes to being a primary source for good, brands are more trusted than governments these days. So, communicating a clear stance on social issues that are relevant in consumer’s everyday lives, shows that you have moved beyond important but foundational facets of sustainability, into other ways that you can be a responsible brand.

Today everyone has a voice – so that means everybody has a responsibility for the planet and the society they’re apart of. Therefore, we need to make our communications and campaigns personal, with the aim to encourage consumer participation. There’s no doubt in my mind that it's risky to tackle controversial topics, especially as a global brand. However at the end of the day it’s all about positive change – so enabling our consumers to join us will have the biggest impact.

rob newell

Rob Newlan, global president at Virtue

If businesses are simply getting their house in order it's probably best to not try to make it headline news. That’s the part that’s table stakes. If brands want to make this a core part of their communications, then they need to clearly define the greatest contribution your organization can make and legitimately contribute to society.

Ikea is a good example of this – they create initiatives, such as opening a store of second-hand Ikea products, as well as designing products that help anyone on any budget live more sustainably. That is groundbreaking in a world where sustainable products often come with a bigger price tag.

So yes, get your house in order, and yes, define your brand purpose. But if you want to stand out, you'll need radical action, not incrementalism. Now is the time for reimagining, for urgency.

hillary davies

Hilary Davies, head of corporate and global brand, M&C Saatchi Talk

Brands dominating the sustainability conversation will be making it all about their customers' lives. People have had a tough year in and out of lockdowns and grappling with economic uncertainty. While most of us associate with a higher purpose to save the planet, the well-documented ‘intention-action gap’ around sustainability is likely to widen in 2021. Living a Greta-approved lifestyle saving Greenland’s ice sheet is admirable, but for many it presents as a complicated set of sacrifices with no tangible ‘my-world’ reward.

As chest-thumping on corporate sustainability gets louder, real consumer mindshare will be earned by brands that address the unspoken question on the lips of even the most well-intentioned: ‘What’s in it for me?’. Brands should pick one relevant micro-issue, make it locally meaningful and demonstrate the impact of individual action. Becoming creators of positive emotional engagement and social rewards in place of finger-wagging induced guilt – drawing long-term loyalty.

BBC's Blue Planet II arguably catalysed the UK’s war on plastics when it showed the effects of ocean plastic along Britain’s coastline. The impact of plastic pollution was brought home to our doorstep, broadcast across our living rooms, and a nation felt empowered to take action and save its own natural world.

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Caroline Davison, managing partner and sustainability lead, Elvis

It’s less about new ways to talk about sustainability and more about new ways to think about sustainability. Reducing the effects of the climate crisis is going to require all of us to embrace different structures, hierarchies and systems. If we use the same business models and approaches that we’ve always used, we’ll continue to place value on the things that have led us to a world at breaking point. For example, the way we measure success in our industry is through very narrow profit-driven metrics. These need to evolve to consider the broader impact of our work in terms of people and planet.

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Helen Hughes, sustainability director, Design Bridge London

Remember that a brand’s efforts in sustainability don’t all have to be communicated and crammed into one touchpoint, such as on pack or in a TV ad. Brands permeate culture in lots of different ways and a person’s journey to shelf (or increasingly the ‘add to basket’ button), product use and disposal also influence their mindset and capacity to make more sustainable choices. So choose your intervention moments wisely and execute them with an authentic brand-led voice. And it goes without saying that it can’t be a flash in the pan affair, it’s got to be a sustained effort.

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Mark Hardy, vice-president global marketing, The Mill

Brands that credibly do their bit across all of their business can shine if they tell their customers. Consider making bold statements such as releasing an alternative Christmas ad revealing your three-point plan to reduce carbon emissions in ten years. Make that ‘the dream’.

Avoid ‘bolt-ons’ (once the cornerstone of CSR!) such as guilt-driven donations and tenuous partnerships. Don’t just ‘off-set’. It looks hollow to increasingly discerning customers. Be true to your market and make real changes. Then tell your customers through your biggest channels. Be honest and open. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about committing to being better.

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Sam Hollis, head of strategy at FutureBrand London

In theory there’s a receptive audience – studies show the pandemic is heightening consumer focus around the environment, and with society’s response to the pandemic a prevailing ‘all in it together’ there’s also a strong desire to support each other and rebuild while being more progressive and equitable. But there’s also cynicism towards companies perceived to be using the pandemic to look good without really doing good (big advertising drive offering minor discounts to NHS staff, anyone?).

I’d suggest two things; first this is a time for evidence rather than intention. Commitments and promises are not enough, in this climate we’re more reassured by results. Second, give the consumer the spotlight. It’s their custom that ultimately enables the sustainable impact any company makes. So don’t pat yourself on the back and expect them to thank you – instead pass on the thanks to them.

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Nick Dormon, co-founder and managing director, Echo

To really cut through the noise, sustainability messaging has to be through the lens of the brand. Otherwise, it will just be more corporate speak that washes over the consumer. This is going to be easier for some than others. The likes of Brewdog have already done a fantastic job building on their existing attitude, community and agility. Others will need a more long-term strategy, so that every step stands out, rings true and moves towards recognition and acceptance. Lego, whose billions of parts are all made of plastic, clearly falls into this group. However, by making all of their trees and flowers from bioplastic, they have started a new sustainable chapter by giving themselves a distinctive and authentic story to tell, something that all brands can learn from.

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Sarah Sanders, chief strategy officer, Recipe Design

It is essential that brands break through the noise and develop an approach to sustainability which has both tangible results and allows them to connect meaningfully with concerned customers. This does not mean kneejerk greenwashing for clout; think McDonald’s ill-advised shift to paper straws which were actually less recyclable than plastic predecessors.

Instead, brands must publicly acknowledge the complexities of sustainability – even if this means admitting they are simply starting their journey.

At its core, this means embedding empathy in sustainability messaging – understanding that these are very real, sometimes scary conversations for consumers who feel overwhelmed by climate change. Be understanding of consumers’ real-word experience of your efforts – McDonald’s initiative fell down when the brand failed to consider the recycling infrastructure actually available to UK consumers.

Such an approach will allow brands to respond to customers in a much more meaningful way – resulting in greater long-term results for both the brand and environment.

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Jo Barnard, founder and creative director, Morrama

Positivity needs to come in the shape of innovation and honest diversity. We need to start making this personal for the message to really come through to brands and the public. Empower people to ask themselves: what can I do and what impact might that have? It’s one thing to talk a good game, but another to carry the message on and influence those around you. Launching a 10-year plan is great, but what are these brands doing now to improve their sustainable credentials? That’s what the consumer is interested in, not what will be happening by 2030.

In an age where we've become numb to 250,000 dying in the US from Covid-19, tonnes of plastic enter our seas every day, and extreme wealth vs extreme poverty is creating huge divides. The world is burning in so many ways, but we must not lose sight of our ability to impact positive change. The battle for a sustainable future is one that will continue for the foreseeable, so we need to make a more conscious effort to empower society through compelling stories. We've got ourselves into a right spot but we have the brains to get ourselves out of it - storytelling and good news would be a great start for the foreseeable.

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Jacob Duer, president and chief executive officer, Alliance to End Plastic Waste

We are seeing a new wave in commitment and leadership to sustainability by businesses, a wave inspired by responsible consumerism. New and better designs, reusable packing and repurposed products from recycled material – emerging signs of tangible change. These are facets of managing the plastic waste challenge. The notion of responsibility in using less to make the same packaging; or making it easy for consumers to reuse or recycle – and they are harder problems to solve. Brands that recognise these reimagine their R&D, supply chains and delivery mechanisms because they are committed to actions that set themselves apart.

Want to join in the chat? Email me at to be included in future editions of this series.

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