Putting the environment on the map

Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord was met with dismay around the world. Amongst the gloom though, it was heartening to see a range of companies stepping in to signal their continued commitment to the environment. They have joined a diverse collection of voices who have signed the “we are still in” initiative, committed to innovation to drive the US to lower emissions in the face of this regressive move from President Trump.

From a consumer communication perspective, one thing I found interesting in all this is the way in which it brought the environment, and specifically brands’ activity on the environment, to the front pages. Global warming is clearly one of, if not the most, pressing issues of our times, but one that it is often difficult to communicate in a compelling, consumer-facing way. We know, from years of research we’ve done ourselves into connecting consumers with social good, that people connect to stories of people – to situations and feelings they can imagine experiencing themselves. It can be an awful lot harder to provoke concern for the environment, which of course impacts upon us all, but in ways that aren’t specifically or immediately clear.

I’ve lost track of the times I’ve read about brands’ positive environmental activity in the sustainability press, and thought to myself that it would be great if this could only be communicated to consumers. For example Tesco recently committed to detoxify all its clothing in collaboration with Greenpeace, and yet when searching for their environmental record in the press, the big news is a negative story about their plastic bag sales. In reality, the plastic bags we all know and try not to use resonate far more than stories about unknown chemicals in our clothes and deep in supply chains.

The big lesson from all of this: there is a need, when telling environmental stories, to find a resonant hook, with relevance to consumers’ worlds and lives. Making the environment relevant might be about clarifying the impact of environmental degradation – and the corresponding positive benefit from caring for our world – on human lives and bodies, like this great activation from Bodyshop. Equally though – and I think the PR generated by the brands who came forward to say they will make good on the US’s Paris commitments is testament to this – there are many ways to make the environment relevant; in this case, brands promoted their positive activity by situating themselves on the opposite side of the debate from the ever so newsworthy Donald Trump.

What we know already: consumers have busy lives, and even though they like to know that brands’ environmental activity is clearly laid out on a website, only the most committed few will take active steps to find out what a company is doing. And yet there are many routes to make the environment relevant: this might be a video campaign based on a great insight or benefit that resonates in my world, connection to a salient news story, or even smart use of a committed celebrity – just look at the column inches generated for Calvin Klein and Eco Age when Emma Watson wore a dress made out of recycled plastic bottles.

In conclusion then, as climate change moves up the news agenda, my hope is that we’ll start to see brands getting more proactive in promoting their environmental efforts in creative ways. And if we see any great examples of this, we’ll be sure to add it to our inspiration deck on our blog: https://www.humankind-research.com/blog/category/Inspiration

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