Three reasons why sustainability is here to stay

Wolfgang Kaehler / Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler / Getty Images

Brands that lean into sustainability, especially through strong imagery, will connect with a broad consumer audience on one of the most universally important issues of our time

Sustainability and climate change have topped news cycles and corporate agendas for almost a decade. But this priority isn’t actually new. 

Fourteen years ago, Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, raised corporate consciousness around sustainability, as the polar bear on a melting ice cap became the visual icon for climate change. But the financial crisis that soon followed in 2008 hindered progress, and searches around sustainability on Getty Images declined over the next 10 years. In fact, the polar bear did not trend again until 2019.

A shift in demand spoke to a shift in priority—as well as awareness.

This year, we’ve been tracking consumer environmental concern and sustainability messaging from brands during the COVID-19 crisis to monitor whether these issues would again take a back seat in light of current challenges. We polled consumers across the globe in 2019 and again at the peak of COVID-19 to explore whether attitudes have changed, and to what extent.

The results were surprising. At the end of 2019, how we treat the planet and each other were key forces driving consumer behavior. But this time, despite the COVID-19 crisis, the importance of sustainability has only increased. 

We can actually see that shift in how brands are using climate-focused imagery. For instance, searches against ‘sustainability’ on Getty Images were up 142% since last year, while ‘sustainable living’ grew 201% in the same period. 

Sustainability will continue to feature heavily in branding moving forward, for three core reasons.

1. It’s a universal concern. Nearly all (92%) consumers we surveyed said they are deeply concerned about at least one environmental issue. For brands, this means that the eco-friendly consumer does not look a certain way or live a stereotypical lifestyle. 

Individuals of all kinds are trying to do their bit, whether by switching to a plant-based diet or using reusable shopping bags. Brands that want to engage around sustainability should lean into more inclusive imagery that captures the breadth of this audience.

2. Consumers want brands to commit to sustainability. Eight out of 10 consumers expect businesses to be environmentally aware in their advertising and communications. That expectation is actually higher among older consumers (84%). Seniors are more likely than any other age group to buy only from eco-friendly brands, and this group represents nearly half the market for consumer goods, according to Nielsen.

3. Consumers respond to potent environmental imagery. The dominant visuals about climate change in the media recently have largely been of wildfires, pollution and plastic waste. So it makes sense that consumers are twice as likely to be drawn to visuals that show how their own actions impact the natural world. 

Picking up on these trends, brands have leaned into sustainable images in their advertising, whether that’s through environmentally-friendly transportation or pushing people to get outdoors. The latter saw a 766% increase in searches on Getty Images during lockdowns.

A recent campaign from IKEA Canada, for example, emphasizes how opting for an energy-efficient light bulb and turning off the switch before leaving the room, for example, can translate into so much more. The retailer also launched “#BuyBackFriday”, a sustainability movement aimed at reusing furniture and home essentials. Both campaigns demonstrate the power of individual action and show that by changing small behaviors, we can have a genuine impact.

Brands that lean into sustainability, especially through strong imagery, will connect with a broad consumer audience on one of the most universally important issues of our time. Our environmental challenges aren’t going anywhere, and neither is sustainable imagery.

Dr. Rebecca Swift is global head of creative insights at iStock by Getty Images 

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