Sustainability is no longer a fad

Brands can go green or get left behind.

With Earth Day tomorrow and the “high” holiday of 4/20 yesterday, brands are seeing green.

Between hero spots from Procter & Gamble focused on sustainable products, to mainstream brands such as Jimmy John’s and BarkBox launching 4/20 stunts, it’s been a week of celebrating Mother Earth and all her glorious (and psychedelic) gifts.

But unlike other “holidays,” brands need to do more than just jump on the bandwagon once a year when it comes to both cannabis and sustainability marketing.

On the sustainability front, we’re all familiar with “greenwashing.” Just like with diversity and inclusion, if you’re going to stand for sustainability as a brand, you have to put real investment behind it and act authentically.

It’s no surprise, in this context, that H&M received pushback for naming actress Maisie Williams its “sustainability ambassador” last week, announced in an Animal Crossing activation that included a sustainability-themed branded island. (If you don’t know about fast fashion’s sustainability issues, and H&M’s in particularread this.)

For younger consumers especially, the climate emergency is exactly that — an emergency that puts their very future in question. That urgency spills over into their purchasing habits. Seventy-three percent of Gen Zers will pay more for sustainable and eco-friendly products.

So if ensuring our continued existence isn’t enough of a reason to embrace sustainability, do it because it’s good for business.

But running an Earth Day campaign isn’t enough. P&G’s recent sustainability campaign, for example, was developed after meeting a decade’s worth of goals to combat climate change, including creating new products that allow people to live more sustainably at home. The campaign sits at the front of another decadelong pledge to meet even more ambitious climate goals by 2030.

“We're generally the kind of company that likes to take action and do things with substance,”  P&G chief brand officer Marc Pritchard told me recently. “Then, when we feel like it's the appropriate time, we go out and engage the consumers we serve. This is a case where we made the progress.”

This attitude should extend to brands that want to get in on the cannabis craze as well.

Legal marijuana is expected to be an $80 billion market in North America by 2028. That’s an opportunity mainstream brands won’t want to pass up, as legalization continues to roll out across the country.

But marijuana has a fraught history in this country directly linked to the mass incarceration of people of color. Black people are almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in the U.S. than white people, despite both groups using marijuana at about the same rate, according to the ACLU.

So while we can giggle at brands that use clever pot puns or tap into people’s munchies, legalization needs to be solved with smart, targeted strategies that give back to the communities that have been torn apart by marijuana possession arrests.

What makes New York’s law legalizing cannabis so impactful is a provision that states 40% of tax revenues from legal cannabis sales will be invested back into the communities most affected by mass incarceration due to marijuana possession.

Ben & Jerry’s 4/20 campaign took a page from New York’s book. The Unilever-owned brand chose to shy away from an easy layup pun about its “half-baked” ice cream flavor and instead promote a petition for the MORE act, which would expunge people’s convictions for prior marijuana possession.

It’s not surprising P&G and Unilever are leading on these fronts because many of their brands are deeply rooted in purpose. They’ve proven through action — not just marketing — that they’re serious about making the world a more positive place.

As consumers get savvier about how brand purpose matches up to reality, and let those decisions guide their wallets, they’ll be looking at both of these spaces closely.

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