Coined by an adman, co-opted by brands: Earth Day’s complex relationship with advertising
Sustainability experts tell The Drum that increased regulation is starting to weed out greenwashing, but this year’s Earth Day campaigns prove we still have far to go.
The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970 / Earthday.org
The first Earth Day was celebrated back in 1970, born out of the need to regulate the most damaging environmental impacts of industry. It ushered in clean water and air acts in the US and put the protection of the planet on the global agenda – to this day, Earth Day 1970 remains one of the largest days of action in history as more than 20 million people took to the streets worldwide.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept is also inherently linked to the multifarious world of advertising. Julian Koenig, the revered copywriter who conceived the name, was also behind Volkswagen’s iconic ‘Lemon’ and ‘Think Small’ campaigns.
Now in 2023, Earth Day is an annual event of global importance for the climate movement, with protests orchestrated by Extinction Rebellion expecting to draw in UK crowds of upwards of 30,000.
And there is no denying that the role of greenwashing in facilitating the climate crisis has well and truly entered into the public agenda, as advertising regulatory bodies and governments around the world clamp down on misleading and exaggerated green claims.
Earth Day has never been a more prescient reminder of the gravity of the climate crisis – so is it really the time for advertising to jump on the bandwagon?
Earth Day is not a sales opportunity
Siobhann Mansel, founder and director of purpose-led consultancy Make It Good, tells The Drum that this year’s Earth Day ought to serve as a reminder of what Earth Day truly stands for, and that “it’s so much more than a meme or a sustainability day to create content around.”
She says a lot of the Earth Day campaigns she’s seen this year represent “a fundamental misunderstanding” of what the day is about and the role of brands and businesses in the conversation. Especially “brands using Earth Day to flog their new product, range or partnership, when production and consumption are exactly what’s driving planetary degradation.
“Earth Day is not a sales opportunity,” she adds.
Irwin Raj, head of sustainability and social impact at Dentsu APAC, agrees that the brands most earnestly committed to fighting climate change will already be addressing the role they play in climate degradation through the promotion of over-consumption. How can they be identified? “They will commit to driving brand growth via uncompromisingly offering consumers choices with a neutral or positive impact on the planet,” Raj says.
“In most contexts, this would mean innovating at the product, business model, or supply chain levels and setting ‘influencing positive consumer choices’ as a guiding KPI throughout the business.”
Public demand isn’t an excuse to greenwash
As the importance of Earth Day has become more elevated in the public’s perception, citizens are expecting more from brands than ever before. That’s the view at least from sustainable fashion entrepreneur, and chief executive officer of RCGD Global, which runs the Oscar's campaign Red Carpet Green Dress, Samata Pattinson, who says: “their engagement is high and so is their interest.
“This, in turn, pushes companies who are working towards being more sustainable and transparent to organize their communications around this date to show their efforts and initiatives around sustainability, but it has also triggered greenwashing in the past. It shouldn’t be performative, it should be all year long.”
However, the backlash against greenwashing means that some brands have been deterred from saying anything at all. “As fake claims are sooner or later uncovered, brands are more careful every time with what they claim and the campaigns they get involved in, as the backlash is often bigger than if they don’t get involved at all.
“Therefore, every year there is more awareness of sustainable brands in the market and more companies trying to appear more environmentally conscious, we also see more campaigns in play.”
Regulation is having an impact
Nilesha Chauvet, managing director of Good Agency, says this is perhaps why we’ve actually seen fewer Earth Day campaigns this year than previously.
“There aren’t currently a huge number of Earth Day-specific campaigns that we’ve seen as yet, versus last year. However, I am not surprised that the latest regulation changes and ASA crackdowns aren’t deterring greenwashing brands. Brands will continue to make insubstantial and inauthentic sustainability claims around moments like Earth Day to ensure visibility in a crowded market. But consumers are far too savvy. It’s naive to underestimate the torrent of potential backlash,” she explains.
“In comparison to previous years, it is clear there is a shift in the number of large-scale campaigns. So that could be a sign that the regulations are having some effect, along with shifts in consumer attitudes. Brands are more cautious and that makes it harder to be creatively braver.”
Climate change is a year-round issue
Across the board, sustainability experts tell The Drum that the only surefire way to avoid greenwashing on Earth Day is to ensure brands are engaging with their role in the climate crisis year-round.
Lucy Von Sturmer, the initiator behind Creatives for Climate says: “In the face of the truth of the IPCC report, it stands that any credible organization or brand is making every day earth day, not a single campaign and certainly not a one-day effort.
“From a marketing point of view, for companies walking the talk, Earth Day provides an opportunity to spotlight their ongoing efforts, though most working in this space are choosing not to contribute to the noise. What we notice is that it's generally the least sustainable brands that are the noisiest during Earth Day, and for that reason, April is certainly the most greenwash-y month!”
While Sam Narr, chief exec and founder of Kibbo Kift Agency, says there needs to be an industry-wide reevaluation of “what a great campaign looks like when considering our ecological collapse.”
“I’d determine this by the tangible impact on either disadvantaged communities or highly toxic industries (fossil fuels, aviation, fast food) and not throwaway campaigns that deliver a quick fix for media,” Narr adds. “I’ve seen plenty of campaigns that tick the box and deliver on the climate and social injustice scale.”
For the climate movement, Earth Day will always be a moment for action and meditation, he concludes. Brands should only be engaging if they truly mean business.
Additional reporting by Preethi Ravi.
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