“Ours is a banal sort of apocalypse,” Amanda Hess wrote recently in her New York Times essay “Apocalypse When? Global Warming’s Endless Scroll.”
“From Don’t Look Up to Greta Thunberg videos to doomsaying memes, we are awash in warnings that we are almost out of time. But the climate crisis is outpacing our emotional capacity to describe it.”In her essay, Hess asserts that global warming represents “the collapse of such complex systems at such an extreme scale” that it overrides our emotional capacity — to pay attention and to reverse or mitigate the damage to our planet caused by climate change as a collective group.
Which raises the question: For brands that actually are acting to mitigate human damage to the planet, is it possible to cut through audience fatigue and emotional burnout? And in doing so, how can we help individuals move the needle from belief in climate change to actually acting alongside brands to fight for a more sustainable future through their decisions and behaviors?
Inspiring Change with Real Action—Then Talking About It
The way to avoid greenwashing is relatively simple on paper: be able to genuinely show, rather than tell, how you are fighting climate change, serving as a tangible reminder that it’s not all doom and gloom; there is hope in action.
The spectrum of action is broad, and far from one size fits all. Brand action could mean following the lead of Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, giving away the company But it can also mean a commitment and plan to transitioning fully away from fossil fuels, joining a climate-action business collective, working in the community to plant trees, or transitioning away from plastic in packaging.
Carbon-neutral efforts such as reducing carbon emissions through the use of more renewable energy sources, offsetting your business’s carbon footprint with donations to bona fide sustainability projects, or investing in EV charging infrastructure for customers and employees, have been shown to be good business practice: They offer companies the opportunity to reduce unit cost, save on waste, and become more desirable to the consumer.
Most of all, it’s important to be honest: if your brand is focusing on improving sustainability in one or two areas, be transparent about where those changes are happening. Don’t try to leach green messaging into areas where a company is not being green. The truth shall set you free — and get potential customers excited.
One thing a climate-fatigued audience understands, after all, is that any action toward halting the effects of climate change can be a powerful, moving, and inspiring moment.
Go To Your Audience, Who Cares But Is Tired
It’s important to remember that your target audience is busy with their everyday life amid what is, or feels like, the apocalypse. They want to support brands that are doing right, and in so, do right themselves. Indeed, a Summer 2022 PwC study showed that not only have half of all global consumers noted that they’ve become even more eco-conscious since the start of the pandemic, they’ve also continued to prioritize purchasing from companies that put the environment first.
The Edelman Trust Barometer found that “80% of consumers agree businesses must play a role in addressing societal issues; they want a company to take actions which... improve social conditions, and make the world a better place.”
But on the other hand, customers are tired. Really, really tired.
In this situation, brands that don’t just create products for consumption, but rather provide solutions to meet needs and create opportunities for real, genuine hope, have the chance to be embraced and to change the consumer’s worldview.
Like all good messaging, it can’t be hard on the consumer. Do what you can to bring the message into their daily life in a relatable way, understanding that life during the era of climate change (and a pandemic, and massive humanitarian crises, and the rising cost of everything, etc., etc.) is not just doom and tragedy.
Of course, we as humans may feel the need to laugh at grave danger, and feel all our other emotions about the situation we as a species find ourselves in.
Even if we feel like the world is ending, we still need to decide which things to buy. As Bo Burnham put it in his mid-pandemic documentary, Inside, “Should I be joking at a time like this? Should I stop trying to be funny?… should I give away my money? (No!)” Life goes on. Humanity will adapt to its new challenges, and brand messaging must adapt, too.
Finding Hope in the Future
Showing responsible climate action, having a sense of humor, understanding your audience’s frayed mindset: all these are effective messaging techniques when times feel especially hard.
And though it may not immediately be front and center in your audience’s mind, there is still significant power in tapping into the omnipresence of hope as a motivator to take action against climate change. Being human in our messaging helps audiences relate. But communicating through the lens of hope — and its undercurrent of the promise of a brighter future — is what helps drive us all forward.
Creativity can create space for hope. Take for instance Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology, which partnered with an ad agency to create a billboard that generates drinking water from air. In this arid region of Peru, drought is a major problem exacerbated by climate change. While the billboard fulfills its traditional role as an advertising tool—in this case for courses at Lima’s University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC)—it harvests moisture directly from the air, which is then processed through a filtration system. Its 96 liters of water generated per day shows, rather than tells, how new technology can spawn hope.
The audience is also, increasingly, young, or at the very least influenced by Generation Z. This generation born after 1996 makes up almost 30% of Americans. As we’ve mentioned before, they are rightfully angry about the current state of the world, having grown up during the Great Recession, school shootings, and violence against the BIPOC community. Now they are handed a planet dealing with climate change.
Gen Z is redefining conscious consumerism. They care what brands do about sustainability. And, a 2019 National Retail Federation Study found that 52% of modern parents say their children influence which brands they consider buying. So when your brand frames climate change messaging with the future in mind, be consistently cognizant that you are actually talking to the future when doing so.
Humanize the Message
A brand taking action against climate change almost always involves people. Now more than ever, it’s important to highlight their stories. Even if the audience can’t be actionable themselves, they want to see other individuals just like themselves taking action. And powerful messaging like this can break through fatigue and emotional burnout.
Consider that an individual’s actions within a company — pushing to better understand and execute a carbon-negative goal, for instance — might serve not just as good PR, but actually inspire buyers to take similar action themselves. Customers are increasingly ready to be led by brands with good business practices. Universally, it is easier for us all to leverage our own hope into tangible change (even when utterly exhausted) when we see the impact of hope in action.
So be honest, be creative, and be human. We can help you share the voices of those people within your brand (or those associated with your brand) who are working to make change happen—and when you do it, let them speak their truth. Your message is stronger with their voice.