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How to Effectively Visualize Sustainability in Our New, More Empathetic World

There is an urgent need to move the visual language of sustainability forward, so being able to represent both technological and societal progress is key.

This year, Earth Day (April 22) arrives in a changed world. After a year of a global pandemic and social justice movements, consumers now expect brands to communicate with greater empathy than ever before.

At iStock and Getty Images, global customer searches for “solar panels on roof” and “sustainable finance” rose significantly in 2020, along with terms like “empathy” and “gratitude.” The familiar visual clichés typically used to convey environmental issues — the lone polar bear, smokestacks, a pair of hands cupping a sprout — are too abstract and impersonal to stand out in today’s crowded and also more sophisticated visual landscape.

At the same time, this is the beginning of an exciting era for sustainability now that we’re no longer debating whether or not climate change is real — and instead, focusing on how best to address it. Big businesses are setting more ambitious sustainability goals than ever before, and clean energy is expected to factor into the US government’s economic recovery plan. Our Visual GPS research revealed that sustainability is a major force in US consumers’ decision-making; and 7 in 10 expect brands to be environmentally aware in all of their visual communication.

While the Getty Images editorial department partnered with Climate Visuals to support and encourage coverage of climate change, our creative team wanted to create an even bigger impact by rethinking the way sustainability looks in commercial visuals, too. A study of print media from 2001-2009 found that climate change visuals are missing solutions: 62 percent of climate change imagery showed impacts, while only 9 percent showed solutions. There is a big opportunity for brands to fill the visual gap left by the news media, and forge positive emotional connections with today’s eco-conscious consumer.

So, what should that look like? We’ve created a set of guidelines outlining best practices when selecting sustainability stills, video and illustrations. Whether you want to convey the steps that your business is taking towards setting and achieving sustainable goals or better connect with consumers by showing how people make sustainable choices in their own lives, there are plenty of options. Here are three key takeaways to keep front of mind:

First off, tell the human story

In order to move away from abstract visual metaphors and clichés, intentionally take steps to make sustainability personal. Authentic moments conveying human connection and emotion resonate far more powerfully with consumers, the world over. What’s more, the United Nations’ definition of “sustainability” goes a step beyond environmental conservation to also emphasize human health, social equality and economic vitality, as well. To best capture this complex idea, bring things back to the human story.

Although businesses often address sustainability and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) as two separate issues, when it comes to the most effective visuals, these should be intertwined. Climate change affects everyone, and our Visual GPS research shows that 82 percent of US consumers see themselves as eco-friendly, meaning that people of all races, ages and genders care about sustainability-related issues — which means it’s a cause en masse. But when we analyzed our most popular sustainability content, the subjects skewed young, white and female. It is imperative to include groups who may have previously been underrepresented, at all intersections of identity — including gender, race, ethnicity, age, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, class and culture — in your visual communications.

Tell real stories of what individuals, communities and businesses are doing to protect the environment

Businesses are making more ambitious pledges than ever before, although what they do depends on the type of business they run. For example, by 2030, 75 percent of Fortune Global 500 companies plan to operate carbon-neutrally, while half of multinational CEOs will extend the life of the material resources their companies use by shifting to a circular model. Likewise, our research revealed that consumers do many different things to support the environment, depending on their lifestyle — from recycling to making their home energy efficient, to adopting plant-based diets.

Despite this variety, the most popular sustainability visuals from our collection tend to show similar scenarios in similar ways. Note that today’s consumer is aware of greenwashing — which is the practice of conveying an environmentally responsible image through generic visual clichés, even when a company isn't taking action to reduce its footprint. So, as a means of building trust, don’t hesitate to broaden the scope of sustainability visuals and tell authentic, new stories. And, as much as possible, choose visuals that reflect what your brand is really doing to protect the environment.

Humanize sustainable technologies and innovations

Following expanded investment in renewable energy, and commitments such as GM’s commitment to create an all-electric vehicle fleet by 2035, renewables and electric cars are becoming more accessible and affordable to a broader range of consumers. In some parts of the country, it is becoming increasingly common to see solar panels on a bikeshare station or residential roof, or to spot someone recharging an electric vehicle in their driveway or in the grocery store parking lot.

Over the past few years, visuals showing zero-waste consumer choices — such as reusable bags, cups, and straws — have become a popular, and admittedly convenient, way of conveying sustainability amongst our customers. However, when we actually tested visuals as part of our research, we found that consumers around the globe responded three times more strongly to visuals showing renewable energy — which means consumers are savvier than you might be giving them credit for! Reflect that you’re listening, by showing how these sustainable technologies fit into people’s everyday lives and center the workforce that makes renewable energy sources function. There is an urgent need to move the visual language of sustainability forward, so keeping pace with both technological and social progress is key.

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