Greenwash isn't the problem. Green wallpaper is

Persil is building on its long-term brand platform with the Dirt is Good Project
Persil is building on its long-term brand platform with the Dirt is Good Project

An abundance of net-zero commitments is creating a sea of sustainability sameness. Advertising must step up to convert ambition into collective action.

What would your biggest regret be if this were your last day of life? Yes, I know – as thought experiments go, it’s a touch on the morbid side, but the vantage point of the end of your days can reveal powerful insights.

The palliative nurse Bronnie Ware, who has spent her career counselling people in their final weeks, writes in her book, The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, that the majority of people feel they have not honoured even half of their dreams.

Why all this talk of the painful regret of unfulfilled ambitions?

Well, as COP26 comes around, we can see a set of dreams and ambitions for the environment that desperately needs to be honoured. The stakes are, of course, as high as they could be. Hence an energised international community and politicians from Biden to Boris are trying to turn up the pressure cooker to full whack. Importantly, every business worth its salt has a pledge to help deliver a sustainable future.

In previous eras, the taint of greenwash has lingered around such ambitions. This sense that some businesses were looking to cynically mislead about their intentions became a significant barrier to trust. Today, the hawk-like vigilance of emboldened activists, regulators such as the Competition and Markets Authority, and a highly engaged news media mean that greenwash is being swooped upon and exposed, helping maintain crucial credibility in the ambitions of those businesses who emerge unscathed.

This leaves an even chunkier sustainability challenge. Not greenwash (the attempt to mislead) but what we might describe as green wallpaper.

What do I mean? Well, we are seeing a stream of net-zero commitments from businesses that are clearly to be applauded. The challenge is that they are inevitably very similar. This means that for customers, brands risk becoming like green wallpaper that fades into the background. To make matters worse, these commitments are, by their very nature, set to far-off deadlines such as 2040 and beyond, making them feel distant from most people’s daily lives.

This is more profound than a problem of corporate comms cut-through. If commitments go straight over people’s heads, it means that the gulf between sustainability ambitions and the collective action required to deliver on them remains as wide as ever.

So what can bridge this gap? Advertising will seem an unlikely hero to many. In the run-up to COP26, critics have launched a sustained attack on an industry that they see as cynically driving a desire for "more, more, more" consumption, which is fundamentally incompatible with a sustainable future. 

What those critics ignore is the potential of advertising to create desire for a different kind of "more" – more sustainable behaviour.

The great strength of populist advertising is that it can move large numbers of people to act. It can normalise and democratise, helping sustainable behaviours jump the chasm from radical early adopters and cross into the mainstream.

But how do we deliver on all this potential? Over the past year, we’ve undertaken a major ethnographic and quantitative research study, speaking to thousands of people across the country to understand what makes sustainability messaging effective. 

This has helped us identify three crucial ingredients: popularity, positioning and power.

Popularity

If you want to make lofty ambitions feel relevant to people’s lives, you need the popular touch. People in our study often cited Sir David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and outstanding school kids as having made a real impact on them, and smart brands will learn from their populist panache.

In recent weeks Sainsbury’s advertising has offered a prime example, cannily connecting the food people put on their plates each day with their impact on the planet, encouraging bite-size sustainable behaviours such as adding lentils to your lamb hotpot.

Positioning

We’ve heard repeatedly in our research that the most valued brands are those that stay true to themselves and offer beacons of reassuring consistency as we navigate change. Early on in the pandemic, we witnessed a backlash to well-meaning but misguided brand responses as they switched towards eerily similar calls for togetherness, prompting memes asking: “Why do all Covid ads look the same?”

Now, amid a wealth of corporate net-zero ambitions, a clear and distinctive brand idea is the key to making what matters memorable. Persil for instance is building brilliantly on its long-term brand platform with its "Dirt is Good Project", encouraging youngsters to “roll up their sleeves and take action on what matters to them, no matter how messy.”

Power

In our study, we saw time and again that a reason people don’t take action, even when they feel strongly about sustainability, is that the size of the environmental issues we all face is so overwhelming and intimidating. 

Through their scale and reach, brands offer an answer, amplifying individual actions and wielding a collective power to make a real difference. Our recently launched sustainability platform for McDonald’s, "Change a little change a lot", delivers squarely against this insight by showing that little actions aren’t little when we all take them together. 

Popularity, positioning and power. These are the three imperatives for leadership in sustainability advertising. The next generation of leadership brands will find a way to balance and deliver upon each of them. They will convert grand, long-term net-zero ambitions into collective day-to-day action. 

They might even help us all avoid the mightiest of deathbed regrets.

Josh Bullmore is chief strategy officer at Leo Burnett

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