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How to be a marketer in the age of sustainability: build momentum, don’t be paralysed by a fear of greenwashing
September 1, 2021
We’re in the age of sustainability. And climate change is ‘the greatest commercial opportunity of our time’ Mark Carney reckons. The growth potential is easy to see as consumers are changing fast – ninety per cent of consumers expect brands to make a real commitment and help them consume better. Our society is searching for survival, meaning, and better choices.
So, there’s an opportunity to prioritise the protection of our planet and make profits too. But are brands feeling the urgency to get to net zero before 2050? Are they seeing the consumer demand for them to be better and the growth opportunities it provides?
The path to net zero is non-negotiable. Or at least it needs to be for the survival of our civilisation. If we don’t act now, the lives and livelihoods of us all will certainly be negatively affected by 2050 – environmentally and economically.
I was in Crete this summer. It was 42 degrees, flipping hot, and the risk of fires was scary. All the locals were seriously concerned about the pace of environmental change. It really is hot on our heels and we need to play our part in cooling the earth.
Apart from nearly burning to death in Crete, this summer I also completed the University of Cambridge Towards Net Zero course. I loved it, even though it was intense to fit in around work and family life.
In the weeks afterwards, I feel like the marketer’s equivalent of coming back from the trenches – it involved weeks of thinking deeply about potential doom and then assimilating what to do to make a difference. Here are my top reflections from the course and my conversations with brand leaders regarding sustainability.
The number one: net zero
The main (flipping obvious with hindsight) point I learned is that net zero really is the number one point to focus on. Yes, I get the heebie-jeebies about single use plastic, and absolutely it matters. Yes, all businesses should be nurturing all elements of ESG, and at Brilliant Noise we sure are with our B Corp certification, BUT, if all major businesses don’t get on track with being carbon neutral or negative (genuinely so, not just buying their way there with offsetting) then our planet will be too hostile to live in.
I’ve got a four and six year old. Nothing freaks me out more than the idea that they won’t be able to have children because they won’t want them to live on our planet. And of course, it will hit developing countries harder and sooner.
The top 100
It makes a bigger difference to the planet if the big businesses dramatically decarbonise than if lots of small purpose-driven brands start up. That’s controversial. And of course we need both. But just 100 companies in the world create 71% of the world’s carbon emissions. Challenging and helping those companies to change will make more impact in our race to net zero than anything else.
The role models
The majority of our clients at Brilliant Noise are FMCG groups. So I focused my course modules on evaluating what they’re all doing and saying about their sustainability transformation strategy.
Unilever isn’t a client of ours but its sustainability strategy is very impressive, and they’re reaping the rewards. They have ambitious goals and the whole organisation is aligned around their decarbonisation mission. Even the bonuses of top bosses are linked to their emission cutting KPIs. They’re cutting 100% of scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 2030 and will be fully net zero by 2039. You can look at the Unilever Climate Transition Action Plan here.
They’re telling stories boldly and the Unilever brands most focused on sustainability are growing at 30% year on year – that’s astronomical growth for an FMCG.
Make true bold claims
Saying that a brand is carbon neutral is only ok if you’re actually decarbonising production. If you’re mainly offsetting, it’s cheating. This piece on offsetting as a PR plan is worth a read.
Good offsetting models like Ecologi play an important part but offsetting alone isn’t enough for the planet’s needs and means a brand won’t realise its growth potential. True decarbonisation is essential, with offsetting as a bonus to cover the gaps in the short term and then create carbon negativity long-term.
Don’t be paralysed by the fear of greenwashing
Many brands are investing vastly in transforming their supply chains to cut emissions and reduce waste, but are still paralysed by such a strong fear of greenwashing that they say nothing.
This is wasteful and harmful in itself – it's missing the opportunity to turn the investment into good.
It’s missing the opportunity to encourage consumers to buy their products that are more sustainable than their competitors.
It’s missing the opportunity to persuade consumers to pay more for significantly more sustainable products that have had vast investment and are better.
And it’s missing the opportunity to raise the bar for all brands to normalise better consumption for the mass market.
Celebrate what you’re doing and tell your sustainability story, but have the humility to say that it’s a journey and you will keep getting better.
Brand leaders need to know what bad greenwashing looks like, what good looks like, what to watch out for and how to feel confident when making claims and planning campaigns. At Brilliant Noise, we create campaigns and content for brands that have a story to tell and need to reveal it in all its colours; not leave it paralysed and hidden for fear of greenwashing.
I know a fraction of what I want to know when it comes to sustainability and what marketing can do to help. But even in my partial ignorance, I’m committed to making Brilliant Noise make a true difference, in our own impact and by helping our clients.
I’m hosting a series of roundtables with brand leaders so we can crunch through these challenges together.
Get in touch at email@example.com if you’d like an invitation to join in, or just a general chat through these issues and opportunities. I look forward to hearing from you!