5 ways brands can move people from just talking about sustainability — to taking real action
- People say they are worried about the
climate crisis, but a study shows they are unwilling to take meaningful action to address it.
- The language of
sustainabilityhas to change to be more focused on human, personal outcomes.
AdvertisementNinety percent of people globally say they are willing to change their actions to be more sustainable.
Yet only 13% of people say they are willing to give up meat, 9% say they are willing to limit international travel, and a third of people say that they sometimes buy the cheapest option even if they know it's bad for the environment. That's according to our own "Truth About Sustainability study," comprising 40,000 interviews across 26 countries.
Why such a chasm between word and action on perhaps the most pivotal and pervasive issue in the modern world?
The three biggest news "stories" of the past five years that have significantly captured the public's attention have been Trump, the Covid pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine – but climate hasn't ever come anywhere close to garnering the same level of attention despite the vast majority of the scientific community agreeing it is the biggest threat to humanity (a number of news outlets noted that Jeff Bezos's trip to space spurred dramatically more press coverage than climate change).
With sustainability, something unique happens…even as large swaths of the population recognize the dire need to adopt more sustainable practices. The way the issue is framed does not convey the immediate and personal impact on our own lives the way other crises and movements have.
The truth is that sustainability has a language problem. To truly rouse people and business leaders to match what they do with what they say, the issue has to engage not just the ears but the hearts and minds of all of us in a deeply personal way.
There are five ways brands can and should change the language they use regarding sustainability to inspire real engagement and impact:
Talk more of people, and less about the planet
The #1 association with sustainability that people cite globally is that it's about "protecting the planet." While instinctively this makes sense, it also reveals a problem. "The environment" is often characterized as being separate from us and allows us to disassociate from the issue of sustainability. We need a reframe that allows people to understand that, above all, sustainability is about "protecting us."
Humanize the language
Advertisement92 percent of the top 100 companies have made a climate pledge in the last two years, yet the most frequently he words most used by these companies when they talk about sustainability are "emissions" and "carbon." This is indicative of the technical storytelling that dominates the corporate dialogue. To truly connect, brands should speak in ways that connect to the everyday lived experience of people around the world in a deeply human way.
Speak to everyone (not just the young people)
Brands frequently make the common judgment error that the younger generations are the ones that care the most about sustainability. But while Gen Z is an activist generation, our findings reveal that people aged 55-64 are more likely to say that they are worried about climate change than those aged 18-24. Further, 70% of parents say that they are worried about climate change, versus 61% of non-parents. "Greta" has become a catch-all for "young people care about the environment" and brands are potentially missing a trick by not nurturing connections between generations.
Remember that (cultural) context matters
Language and cultural context matters, and there's a major opportunity for brands to touch upon specific cultural flashpoints in their messaging to translate attitudes into behavior.
AdvertisementIn India, for example, where many people are vegetarian due to religious and spiritual practices, respondents are most likely to say that they are willing to give up eating meat to fight climate change (26% India vs. 15% global). In Germany, a hot bed of engineering and good design, people are most likely to say that they would buy products that are designed to last a long time (58% Germany vs. 42% global).
Ultimately, if brands want to spark change, they should be meeting people where they are, starting with the low-hanging fruit within their culture. It snowballs from there to more and more behavior change.
Change the narrative from less to more
Much sustainability-based messaging is about telling people to give up things or stop certain behaviors. Framing sustainability as a pathway to abundance rather than an act of sacrifice and deprivation is a crucial way of communicating the immediate and personal benefits of adopting climate-friendly behaviors. Meaningfully addressing sustainability through a lens of "more" (more time, health, flourishing, community, joy) rather than "less" (less sickness, pollution, stress, exploitation) reveals opportunities to unleash creativity to solve challenges that shape a hopeful future.
When asked who has the greatest responsibility for reversing climate change, the top three answers are pegged neck and neck: the government, companies, and people like me. Brands now hold the coveted spot in people's trust and consciousness that they have long worked to achieve. This is a pivotal moment for them to change the language around sustainability to make it something more actionable for people, and to elevate their role in peoples lives from the transactional to the meaningful.
AdvertisementNadia Tuma-Weldon is EVP, global head of thought leadership at
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