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David Attenborough has issued a comms challenge and we need to prove we’re up to it

Sir David Attenborough made his Instagram debut last week, issuing a call for action on climate change

Following David Attenborough’s opening statement on Instagram, in which he described saving the planet as a ”communications” issue, Georgina Wilson-Powell mulls how the ad industry can rise to the challenge.

Aged 94 and with six decades of TV and radio credits to his name, Sir David Attenborough last week started up an Instagram account (and broke a Guinness World Record in the process). But why? Because he acknowledges that “saving our planet is now a communications challenge”.

If Sir Attenborough is finding it a challenge to get the message across, what hope is there for brands and businesses as they attempt to translate good intentions into action?

With Black Friday nearly upon us, will we see cash-strapped, newly tech-savvy consumers tempted to dive in? Or, will the slower pace of consumption brought on by the pandemic help to rein in the urge for a bargain?

There is so much mixed messaging, so many doom and gloom statistics and an overwhelmingly negative media narrative around the environment that it is no wonder so many people zone out and wait for someone else to fix it. If we are not careful, this could be our undoing.

We need to find better ways to capture the imagination and energy that we know is out there. Instead of threatening audiences with disaster scenarios, we need to communicate the opportunity to build a vision of a shiny, exciting, imaginative and more enjoyable future.

Sustainability is all about innovation, not deprivation. From Happy Genie handbags made of apple leather to plastic- and packaging-free shampoo at Lush, and from Vollebak hoodies made from pulped eucalyptus to shoes, fuel and food all made of algae, there is no limit to the pioneering ideas out there.

Brands have shown they can get this right. Ikea has proven its eco credentials without being preachy, seen in its ’Accidental Environmentalist’ ad, a sustainable store in Greenwich, a good selection of recycled products and, now, a second-hand store in Sweden.

Likewise, Mars and David Attenborough have backed the Lion’s Share Trust, calling for brands using animals in their ads to donate 0.5% of the media spend to the charity, while Iceland co-opted Greenpeace’s ad to great effect for a Christmas campaign against palm oil.

Helping to shape a world that consumes less isn’t about promoting guilt-ridden sacrifices that won’t hold when challenged. A shift to a more sustainable future is a marathon, not a sprint – a lifestyle change, not a crash diet – and this need for a more positive approach is a chance for the creative industries to partner with brands and show what can be done.

Brands should be beacons of connection, fostering empathy and sharing insights that could shift our societies as one.

We could start with Black Friday. Long standing eco-pioneer Patagonia shuts its shops on Black Friday, as does outdoors brand Rei, which also encourages everyone to #OptOutside – a hashtag that’s been used 16m times. Last year, British fashion designer Christopher Raeburn shut his shops and opened his studio for the day, offering to repair clothes from any brand as a way to combat mindless consumption.

From racial inequality to environmental justice, the issues need radical, urgent change, and the only way to do it is to take everyone with us on that path, using our powers of communication and storytelling to promote that shift in the real world.

Attenborough has issued a communications challenge. Now, it’s up to the creative industries to prove they are up to the task.

Here are some tips that will help them along the way.

  • Be authentic. Don’t try to jump on causes or campaigns just to appeal to a more conscious shopper. Shift what you already do to make it more green instead.

  • Be transparent. Share your supply chains, talk about where you have issues, explain what you have achieved and what you want to achieve. Otherwise, consumers will assume what they want to.

  • Be honest. Take consumers on a journey with you. They want to see you trying, changing, adapting and overcoming challenges to be more ethical, to reduce your carbon emissions and so on.

  • Be realistic. Don’t tell customers you’ll be net zero in 12 months if it’s obviously impossible.

  • Don’t greenwash. Consumers are wising up to brands that say one thing and do another. Follow up your big statements with clear, demonstrable action.

If we all took notice of this practical advice, maybe we could rise to Attenborough’s challenge and help solve it.

Georgina Wilson-Powell is the founder of Pebble magazine, a digital title for stylish, sustainable living.

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