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Sense & Sustainability:
How Can Brands Foster Consumer Courage in Combating the Climate Emergency?

To foster courage in the face of crisis, empowerment through transparency, trust through intersectional action and a constant determination to iterate and improve can give hope and empowerment in a troubling age.

It hasn’t been the ‘hot vax summer’ that we were promised. Instead, it’s been a summer where the impact of the climate emergency showed there’s no time to waste. Floods in Germany, raging forest fires in Greece, soaring temperatures and wildfires heating up the Western US and record wet bulb temperatures in Pakistan are stark, real-time reminders of the devastating impact of climate change that show us what the ‘new normal’ will really look like. And with people connecting more with nature during the pandemic and embracing the experience of their local area, it’s not surprising that 86 percent of people want to see a more sustainable word post-pandemic, according to the World Economic Forum.

But with the impacts of climate change rapidly escalating, brands need to both be leaders in climate action and empower people to make positive choices. This era of "solastalgia" (anxiety created by the climate crisis) calls for a more deliberate approach. As climate scientist and writer Kate Marvel wrote back in 2018: “We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.”

As eco-anxiety and climate grief grow, people are looking for support in how to continue. So how can brands create courage among their audiences? And during an age of climate grief and growing sense of doom, businesses need to move beyond empty promises and deliver a meaningful strategy for change.

A key challenge for encouraging sustainable behaviours is how businesses can bridge the intention-action gap. We understand that there is a general cultural willingness towards pro environmental action – a PEW survey from 2020 found that 64 percent of all Americans feel that protecting the environment should be a top priority for governments. While small pockets of climate change deniers exist, that the Earth is getting hotter is no longer a contentious cultural issue. Unfortunately, however, consensus on the changing climate doesn’t equate with mass adoption of eco-friendly behaviours. Barriers such as price, availability and convenience often stop people from creating more sustainable habits.

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To encourage action, you need to build trust. This is especially important as recent research has found that 73 percent of Gen Z would be willing to pay more for sustainable products. But greater investment means brands need to be credible when it comes to doing what they say they’re committing to, in order to earn that value. People feel misled over sustainability, so establishing trust with audiences is important. Keeping it simple and prioritising transparency is key. For example, Positive Luxury’s Butterfly Mark certification has been created to act as a legitimate marker of sustainable practices, partnering with brands to endorse their production methods. We’ve seen how effective something as simple as labelling can be in helping people cut through the noise. In a study of 23,000 vegans, 91 percent said they relied on a ‘V stamp’ that independently verifies vegan produce to inform their purchasing decisions. There’s a similar opportunity for sustainability.

Approaching transparency from a different route, Allure magazine has made a stand against greenwashing by committing to not using false eco-jargon in the magazine. It has rejected the use of terms such as recyclable, green, compostable and biodegradable as crutches for avoiding meaningful action. The editors explained:

“We need to do much more to understand and address the realities of the beauty waste problem — and a good place to start is with the way we talk about it.”

In fact, as we grapple with the new paradigms of the climate emergency, there’s a need for new words to name and give significance to the challenges people are facing. Scientist Bruce Erickson coined the term ‘endling,’ for example, to denote an animal that was the last of its species. Talking about the significance of naming, Erickson explained that: “We don’t name the things we choose to ignore. … Somehow, naming it gives it a value that wasn’t there before.” As people try to process climate grief, the words we do use to talk about the climate are equally as important as those we reject.

We know from the pandemic that in times of global crisis, people rely on businesses. Research from March last year found that 78 percent of people felt brands should help them in their daily lives during the pandemic. Stakes are high around false promises by businesses, and greenwashing can derail confidence-building in terms of environmental action, breaking down positive intentions and leaving people feeling frustrated, unempowered and confused. Businesses that take the time to research their processes, and get into the detail of what those processes are, also win trust. For example, the body wash brand Plus talks through its "Less Waste, More Magic" approach in a step-by-step guide on its website, taking readers through everything from its dissolvable packaging, to composting and shipping. Not only is it transparent, but the approach shows how the brand has been created with a view to making eco behaviours as easy as possible for people to enact.

The environment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. For businesses to truly empower and play a meaningful role in change, they also need to pursue environmental action from an intersectional standpoint. Race and poverty directly correlate with exposure to toxic air and polluted water; and as the world warms, research shows that those in the Global South will be disproportionately impacted by heating of 1.5-2°C. So, a meaningful strategy needs to take a multi-faceted approach to combating the climate crisis that acknowledges and addresses the inherent inequalities in the climate emergency. Brands such as Girlfriend Collective are leading the way here: The brand makes activewear products out of recycled fishing nets and cupro, and demonstrates its attention to intersectionality by donating part of its proceeds to organizations that support Black Lives Matter. And Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles maps the impact on both the environment and local communities for each piece the company makes.

“As we see more and more brands emerging that are really driven by activism, with true purpose and cause behind them, it’s really important for people to feel as though they’re part of something,” says Heather Crawford, VP of marketing and e-commerce at sustainable packaging service Loop. To foster courage in the face of crisis then, empowerment through transparency, trust through intersectional action and a constant determination to iterate and improve can give hope and empowerment in a troubling age.

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