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The power of human health: How brands can fight climate change and improve engagement

April 28, 2023

There is a disconnect in how businesses speak about sustainability and what actually resonates with the public. Could a clearer connection between individual health and the health of the planet drive greater climate change action while simultaneously improving brand engagement? Ogilvy Consulting's Gemma Bardsley (partner), Clara Zabludowsky (consulting director) and Pandora Godfrey (consultant) explain how.

In the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, scientists delivered a final warning on the climate crisis: “Act now or it is too late.”

However, despite this stark warning, climate change still feels like a psychologically distant issue for many. Finding new ways to engage with people on climate change is more important than ever.

At Ogilvy Consulting’s Sustainability Practice, we have been exploring new ways to help clients drive urgency and action while simultaneously improving brand engagement.

Healthy planet = healthy people

“There is an inverse relationship between abstraction and action,” says Dan Bennett (UK lead, Behavioral Science Practice, Ogilvy Consulting). The less personal something feels to someone, the less likely it is to spur action – regardless of how compelling the argument for change is."

Corporate action on climate change is often driven by a narrative around the health of our planet. It is increasingly difficult for any organization to go about their business without clear commitments on lowering their negative impact on the planet – whether it be achieving net zero, switching to renewable energy sources or reinventing their packaging.

However, the health of the planet is a concept which can still feel remote and intangible, and lack the personal relevance needed to drive action. But what would happen if brands were better at highlighting the link between a healthy planet and healthy individuals?

The health impact of air pollution alone has led to 8.8 million premature deaths every year. As levels of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution continue to increase, we further exacerbate the risk of developing various health conditions including heart disease, respiratory diseases and stroke. Climate change will also reduce the availability of healthy foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, putting more people at risk of both chronic hunger and diet-related conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Declining mental health and climate change are also closely linked, as conversations on climate change are connected to words of sadness, frustration, and depression.

The evidence is clear, but just having it is not enough. People are not connecting the dots from planet to people – and most brands and businesses are not bringing them together in a way that strengthens and accelerates the sustainability agenda.

Every business can be a health business

There is a genuine opportunity for every business to see itself as a health business. The present-day environmental impacts every business contributes to have a direct impact on the health of people worldwide. Brands and businesses can help to create better understanding of how these issues are related and how we can minimize their impact on both people and planet.

“Framing sustainability action in human health can help generate renewed urgency and action,” says Gemma Bardsley (partner, Sustainability Practice, Ogilvy Consulting), “and it presents businesses with the opportunity to elevate the relevance of their sustainability strategies.”

New research published in The Journal for Climate and Health highlights that communicating the health impacts of climate change, (or conversely the health benefits of addressing it), may be more effective at driving support for climate change policies and action than messaging focused on environmental or economic consequences. We also believe effectively demonstrating this link – and what can be done to improve both – can help drive increased brand engagement as a result.

The benefits of a health-led approach

Linking sustainability actions with their effect on human health has the potential to achieve the following outcomes:

Creating consensus for climate commitments

In a fractious world, research also shows that speaking about the health impacts of climate change can help build overarching support for the sustainability agenda. Connecting corporate climate pledges with the impact they will have on the direct health of individuals can help companies speak more confidently about their sustainability ambitions by positioning the issues in a way that everyone can relate to and get behind.

Delivering differentiation in the marketplace

The ubiquity of net zero pledges and other climate commitments shows businesses are aligned on the need to act to deliver a healthier planet. Highlighting the health imperative behind them is a largely untapped way to bring them to life, show an understanding of climate change’s full implications, and accelerate action.

Driving deeper connections with stakeholders

While conversations about sustainability abound, there is a disconnect in how corporates speak about it and what resonates with the general public. Applying a health framing to a company’s sustainability commitments provides a direct and tangible way to bring them to life, deepen their relationship with employees, policy makers and individuals and rally their support to help make them a reality.

A clear business case for uniting planetary and human health

A key takeaway from the IPCC report showed that the economic benefits for people’s health from air quality improvements alone would be roughly the same, or possibly even larger than the costs of reducing or avoiding emissions.

As the business case behind uniting planetary and human health becomes stronger, the connection between the two is increasingly becoming part of the public conversation and driving action within companies both within the health sector and beyond.

“Our everyday health is so reliant on a healthy planet,” says Tess Player, VP global head of expert, Haleon. “In partnership with academia and professional bodies, at Haleon, we’ve developed The Clean Breathing Institute to highlight the devastating impact of air pollution on our health and to support pharmacists in helping their communities and patients to breathe better.”

With the right emphasis, the link between human and planetary health can also be elevated to strengthen not just a company’s sustainability strategy, but can also be framed as an engagement and, ultimately, a purchase driver for brands and products.

IKEA, for example, has set an ambition to make healthy and sustainable living a reality for the many and brought them to life through individual products. This includes promoting a plant-based diet as both a sustainable and nutritious choice and driving better air quality by addressing the root causes through their supply chain, as well as providing solutions for cleaner indoor air.

As the pressure to address climate change grows, the language we use can play a substantial role in helping to drive awareness, relevancy and action for businesses, policy makers and individuals.

By framing sustainability action in human health, we can generate renewed urgency and action on climate change – while also strengthening business and brand engagement in the process.

Article written by Ogilvy Consulting: Gemma Bardsley (partner), Clara Zabludowsky (consulting director) and Pandora Godfrey (consultant)