5 innovative ways brands are making sustainability matter
In an era of continuing coverage of climate disasters, when celebrities admonish each other for single-use plastics and Greta Thunberg admonishes world leaders on behalf of an entire generation, being able to speak to sustainability has become a necessary tool in every marketer’s kit.
But gone are the days of preaching to a crunchy choir of off-the-grid environmentalists with little purchasing power. “Gen Z has zero desire to go quietly,” says Jason De Turris, senior VP of marketing sciences at plant-based produce protection brand Apeel. “They're going to be very vocal. They’re going to vote with their wallets.”
And it’s not just young people who are paying attention to the carbon footprint of the products they buy. Marketers are people, too (it’s true!), and greening the supply chain and store shelves is becoming a personal imperative. “We're seeing really conventional brands saying, ‘We don't feel good about the amount of plastic waste we're putting in the world. We need to find other options," says Katie Klencheski, founder of Smakk Studios, a Brooklyn-based creative agency that works with mission-driven brands. “And they're saying it not just to be competitive, but because they feel icky. They don't like the idea that for years they've been making something that is washing up on beaches.”
Of course, some brands are better at this than others. Here are five that are doing it right.
In the Swedish retailer’s classic “Lamp” ad, a grumpy spokesman tells viewers to throw away a broken light and buy a cheap replacement. It’s almost quaint in its ignorance. In the last few years, though, Ikea has turned sharply from its “fast furniture” roots to embrace LEDs, reusable containers—even repairs. A metaphorical climate crisis on a collision course with Earth is reduced to a manageable meteorite in a spot by Mother London from January, part of the “Fortune Favors the Frugal” campaign that highlights how small actions add up to big changes.
“We found perceptions that sustainability is expensive and difficult—a barrier to actually making lifestyle changes and doing something about it. In many ways that’s unsurprising. The sustainability movement has become an increasingly privileged space, associated with having money and headspace to burn. In the midst of the pandemic’s financial stresses, unaffordable or difficult changes are not the way to encourage more people to live more sustainably,” says Kemi Anthony, marketing communications manager at Ikea. “We think we have an important role to play in dismantling barriers like this and showing sustainable living that’s realistic and achievable.”
Tide’s current campaign features celebs with chilly monikers making cold calls in Saatchi & Saatchi’s pitch for washing clothes in cold water, previously billed as a big no-no for fans of clean clothes. But the benefits are two-fold—a little something for the environment, a little something for the wallet.
“If I'm trying to sell you an avocado or an apple, I can talk about the planet, or I can talk about your pocket,” De Turris says. “For some consumers, talking about the planet is going to be most resonant. If you're like the average consumer going to the grocery store, I may not need to be telling you about the planet.” It’s like the two-pronged strategy he uses at Apeel, focusing on avoiding food waste for both environmental and monetary reasons. “Our positioning is a ‘we’ positioning, but some of our messaging can be a ‘me’ benefit.”
Grey Europe cashed in on Volvo’s reputation for safety by tying it to the dangers of climate change—worse than any car crash. The twist at the end of the spot was only possible because of a long-running brand platform, retrofitted with new messaging for the car manufacturer’s push toward an all-electric fleet.
The shoe brand plans for 90% of its offerings to be sustainable by 2025, and it showcased the new Stan Smiths with recycled upper in a sweet spot by Johannes Leonardo that took “green” literally. “If we all do our part, we can make the world a better place, a greener place, for the next person to walk in our shoes,” warbles Kermit the Frog. The Muppets have plenty of cross-generational appeal, and the brand reached out to its target Gen Z demo further with a plastic-free takeover of the facade of the Brooklyn Central Library by Vice Media Group.
For decades, Patagonia has paved the way for other companies by acclimating consumers to sustainable materials and higher price points. “You've got to make that information crystal clear and usable by the consumer,” says Neeru Paharia, associate professor of marketing at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. “So they can justify to themselves that the more expensive item is worth paying that money for because it's going to last longer.”
Patagonia has always been clear-eyed in its mission and its message. “I think Patagonia has done everything right,” Klencheski says. “They're not just a company that sells stuff to use outside. They've spun off non-profits, they spun off new standards that they're creating for their industry." That means the company has been able to branch out in its marketing, too, and it was particularly political during the Trump administration, tagging shorts with the line “Vote the assholes out.”