Since the 1970s, the purpose of Earth Day has been to highlight urgent action required to save our planet. This is indeed a necessary and urgent cause given that the latest IPCC report was a damning reminder of the catastrophic impacts of human-led climate change. But it’s exactly this "urgent action" from brands that seems to be lacking in Earth Day communications.
But like many one-off "days" of the year that pledge to do good for the world, Earth Day has become a commodity of sorts for brands and organisations. Some initiatives and campaigns aspire to run throughout the year or are meaningfully tied to a goal, while others are a mere flash in the pan.
Either way, April 22 has proven over the years to be an auspicious calendar date for marketers. Some also choose to observe the end of March during which Earth Hour might be fixed. With a surplus of brand communications during this period, have consumers become hardened when Earth Day rolls around each year?
Moving from awareness towards action
Suzy Goulding, director at MullenLowe Sustainability, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that she’s not a huge fan of ‘days’.
“They encourage a lot of virtue signaling from brands without any real substance or action behind the messaging and pretty pictures. That said, using something like Earth Day as an anchor for a company’s sustainability commitments and actions can help galvanise customers and employees to get involved in some way by providing a point of focus,” she says.
Goulding argues that awareness doesn’t really become “stale” but it needs to be backed up by real commitment and action: “To build trust and credibility today, brands must walk the talk—anything less appears hollow and inauthentic.”
"Very few brands or companies actually do anything meaningful for Earth Day. If you’re serious about sustainability, then you’re probably making changes to your business and your products already."
—Suzy Goulding, MullenLowe Sustainability
Awareness—in many cases—can be a powerful communications goal to shed light on issues, especially those that are often sidelined in mainstream media. But one could argue that climate change is no more a marginalised issue thanks to the work of scientists and activists. Brands too have extensively spoken about awareness on sustainability for decades—whether or not the agenda behind sustainability communications is to ultimately drive profit.
Graham Drew, chief creative officer at Grey Malaysia, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that nothing motivates brands’ bottom line more than a moral crisis.
“Customers have woken up and a conspicuous conscience is now a very real commercial advantage for brands,” he says. “So Earth Day has become a broad platform for all brands to communicate their sustainability and CSR credentials—it’s great for business, and it also happens to be good for the planet.”
What consumers want, Drew adds, is smart, authentic, tangible action points for brands and the “greenwashing gestures of a few years ago just won’t cut it anymore”. And consequently, consumers are willing to pay a premium for a product that has a visibly sustainable supply chain.
"What people want is ‘show me how I can do better’—make it easy for me to make the right choice, and I’ll reward you with my loyalty because it makes me feel a little less ‘shitty’ about the impact I’m having on the planet."
—Graham Drew, Grey
While this is an idealistic pattern of consumer behaviour, it doesn’t yet explain continuous growth categories such as industrial farming or fast fashion. For example, Chinese fast fashion brand Shein has recorded astronomical growth in the last few years—including a US$100 billion valuation—despite a lack of transparency around allegations of exploited labour and chemical compounds used in its clothing. Shein’s model of rapid manufacturing and record-low prices have even compounded a new term—ultra-fast fashion.
Drew may be cynical about what tangible change constitutes for brands but remains optimistic this is now a “watershed” moment because it means billions and billions of dollars are now being pumped into making better choices.
“This year in March, we saw the UN Environment Committee agree to a globally binding treaty on plastics, the biggest moment for the environment since 2016. Global brands like Unilever, Mondelez, Mars and Nestle all supported the treaty and will now have to drastically limit their plastic emissions. Change is happening,” he says.
Hyundai released a sustainability campaign today called ‘Goal of the Century’ featuring footballer Steven Gerrard and K-pop group BTS. Based on a press release, the company aims to “unite humanity through football and encourage universal support for a sustainable future”.
The campaign is said to be a part of Hyundai’s mission to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, but despite the star-studded film, it fails to highlight how the brand’s ambassadors “promote various environmental and social sustainability projects throughout 2022”. Instead of clearly spelling out tangible efforts of the brand’s ambassadors, it reads like just another way of leveraging celebrity status to elevate the brand, as well as to tout its FIFA World Cup partnership.
Stephen Tracy, COO at Milieu Insight, echoes Drew’s sentiment and adds that consumer expectations of brands when it comes to pledging social causes like Earth Day can vary by company or industry.
For example, within the F&B industry, more consumers are asking for ethically sourced products, supporting local farmers or producers, and looking for meat alternatives. Whereas in the auto industry, some consumers are now expecting the more traditional brands to focus on and produce more hybrid or full-electric alternatives to combustion engines.
“As a baseline, I think there’s an underlying expectation among many consumers that brands should take steps to ‘do no harm’ and work toward a net-zero impact on the environment,” says Tracy.
And because public awareness around sustainability continues to increase, this has paved the way for increasing expectations, and the acceptance of new rules and regulations and any inconveniences these may bring, says Kelly Johnston, COO at Sandpiper.
“With these dynamics at play, greenwashing is no longer an option and we see companies responding with more sophisticated and considered messaging around milestones and events such as Earth Day,” says Johnston.
This Earth Day, she hopes to see more local companies in Asia finding their voice in these important conversations and shouting about their sustainability goals and tangible achievements.
An unmet demand for sustainability
From a 2021 study by Forrester, consumers prefer brands that stay true to their values. In fact, surveyed consumers in Asian countries preferred this more so than their Western counterparts. And more than half of online adults in five different countries say they prefer to buy from brands that stay true to their own values rather than reflect the latest trend.
Vivek Kumar, CMO at WWF Singapore, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that consumers have become more aware and are expecting clearer action from brands.
“Dates such as Earth Day or Earth Hour remind both individuals and companies of the importance of creating sustainable businesses and practices,” he says. “But consumers are also in a much better position to identify greenwashing in brands.
"Consumers are not acceptive of vague promises of environmental friendliness and sustainability from companies without any solid evidence."
—Vivek Kumar, WWF
Because of this, brands need to keep these factors in mind and work with external advisors, if needed, to ensure their sustainability claims are checked and factual. Business transparency can provide consumers more optimism and trust for them to support brands on their sustainability journey. And in a world where everyone is constantly bombarded by different calls to action, it’s imperative to lean on the power of creativity to ensure messages on sustainability are heard, adds Kumar.
Thank you Singapore for taking a stand for our planet Earth Hour is here! pic.twitter.com/gyoKCxF3pG— WWF-Singapore (@wwfsg) March 26, 2022
Despite clear evidence that consumers are increasingly literate about sustainability, a recent study by WWF Singapore and Accenture found that there is clear unmet consumer demand for more sustainable products and services in Singapore.
“Consumers want sustainable products to offer better end-to-end value, from environmentally friendly components to greener last mile delivery. A third of consumers [in Singapore] are willing to pay a premium of up to 10% for sustainable alternatives,” says Kumar. “Brands and CMOs need to take notice and respond to these consumer trends in their strategies, products and services.”
The “end-to-end value” Kumar speaks of includes sustainable sourcing of materials or selecting services right until the moment a brand concludes its work or disposes of a product.
“There’s simply no other way,” he stresses. “Brands need to take meaningful and concrete action towards sustainability. And if any company wants to ‘sustain’ its business in the long term, it needs to take its environmental impact seriously.”
This story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.