Published 2 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: courtesy of Getty Images
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
consumers now expect brands to communicate with greater empathy than ever
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
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.
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So, what should that look like? We’ve created a set of
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:
In order to move away from abstract visual metaphors and
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
(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.
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
while half of multinational CEOs will extend the life of the material
their companies use by shifting to a circular
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
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.
Following expanded investment in renewable energy, and commitments such as GM’s
commitment to create an all-electric vehicle fleet by
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.
Published Apr 14, 2021 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Rebecca Rom-Frank is the New York-based Creative Insights Researcher at Getty Images and iStock. Previously, she was a photo editor at a non-profit organization and a freelance writer. She holds a BA from Bard College and studied film at The New School.