Pete Martin
Pete Martin 16 December 2021

How to Communicate in a Climate Crisis? A Marketer's Guide Post COP26

There’s no doubt that COP26 grabbed the public's attention. Many newly inspired businesses and brands will be keen to communicate their sustainable practices and green credentials - but what does good marketing in a climate crisis look like, and what is simply greenwashing?

COP26 is over. What did we learn?
Well, we learned that AOC likes Irn-Bru. That Greta still doesn’t mince her words. And that even CNN will sometimes confuse Edinburgh with Glasgow.
But ask the person in the street about Article 6 or the methane pledge (or about what ‘COP’ actually means), and they might struggle to give you deeper insight.
You might say then that people don’t know enough about climate change. You might argue that our climate woes are fuelled by a deficit of knowledge. You might conclude that the role of good marketing must be then to fix this knowledge gap and to inform people.
But that’s where we’re mistaken. Because the fact is that facts are not the issue.
Most people know enough about climate change to want real change. And no, you don’t need to know the meaning of ‘COP’ or the details of Article 6 to know that rising seas and air pollution are bad. The issue isn’t a deficit of information. It’s a deficit of power.
Think about how indigenous nations protect 80% of our planet’s biodiversity - but were mostly excluded from negotiations at COP26. Meanwhile, the number of fossil fuel lobbyists in Glasgow was greater than the largest national delegation.
Indeed, it is this kind of power imbalance that good marketing should address – whether at the workplace or in global politics. In that spirit, marketing strategists Always Be Content have five radical suggestions for brands and businesses on how to do good marketing in a more sustainable world.

Say your Sway: Good Marketing Acknowledges Varying Degrees of Power

‘Calculate your carbon footprint. Recycle at home. Change your diet’. Messages like these attempt to bring attention to the sustainable efforts of a business paradoxically by highlighting what individuals can do.

The problem is that individual emissions pale in comparison to that of businesses. 90% of plastics end up in landfill anyway. And changing individual diets does little to change harmful industrial practices.

On the other hand, businesses have sway. Businesses can influence local and global policy; produce new wants and desires; eliminate harmful products and packaging; and create democratic workplaces with local jobs and good wages.

Rather than telling powerless individuals to exercise power over systemic issues, it’s better to accept, acknowledge and use the powers of business for good. Don’t be afraid to lead.

Accountability is Attractive: Good Marketing Owns up to the Role of Business in Climate Change

If acknowledging your influence as a business in changing the world is important, then acknowledging the role of business in climate change sits on the other side of that coin.

Businesses have had a major role in creating new markets, producing new wants and needs, and scaling up production in the pursuit of profit. These measures have contributed to climate change, and marketing has always been instrumental to that.

Think about the role of the automotive industry in creating products that rely on fossil fuels and in motorising everyday life. But what if you saw a car commercial that was different? What if it said something like this?

‘We know selling petrol cars got us in this mess. And we know we had a big part to play in it. That’s why we’re lobbying for public transport and for banning petrol cars – and why we’re electrifying our cars as fast as we can. But until we get there, we’re here to help you get from A to B in the most efficient way possible.’ Feels different, doesn’t it?

Call for Systemic Change: Good Marketing Dares to Challenge the Systems that Contain it

In ancient Rome, you could buy a pot – or you could buy the potter. But to buy the potter’s work capacity in allotments of time? What a strange concept! Yet, that’s modern work.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine a world without profits and markets everywhere. It seems unfathomable. It’s equally hard to deny that the social and economic systems we’ve created are unsustainable.

And so, we need to accept that as much as we need a better future, it may be unimaginable to us right now. Perhaps, today’s marketing practices won’t make much sense in that future. But that shouldn’t keep marketers from calling for systemic change.

For example, it might seem strange for marketers to advocate for limits on advertising. But there’s nothing wrong in daring to imagine a vastly different world if that means we’ll all be happier and healthier.

Make a Difference: Good Marketing Walks the Talk

Since international climate talks began in the early 1990s, we’ve emitted more planet-warming greenhouse gases than we did in the previous two and a half centuries. Ouch.

This is not to say that climate talks and technological promises don’t matter. They matter a great deal. But they can seem toothless in the absence of real and impactful action.

The same is true for business. Climate pledges, diversity hires and tree planting are common ways to signal business sustainability. But more often than not, they don’t lead to fundamental change.

Indeed, people have a knack for telling gesture from action. So, be daring and do something impactful. Lobby for better legislation. Set strict supply chain requirements. Democratise the workplace. Walk the walk – so you can talk the talk.

Show your Cards: Good Marketing Admits to the Dynamics of our World

Everyone knows that ads are meant to make you buy more stuff. Everyone knows that you can’t run a business in this world without making a profit.

There’s no point in hiding what your marketing is meant to do. 

In fact, it’s perfectly okay to admit that even if you don’t agree with the profit imperative, you still have to conform to those dynamics. Now, imagine an ad telling you this:

‘We’ve not yet figured out how to stay in business and pay our employees without advertising and selling you things. But when we do, we promise: the silence will be deafening. Until then, 2% of our profits will support the climate movement.’

Most of us wake up each morning and go to work. In doing so, we collectively maintain a society and an economy that warms the planet and harms nature.

Changing the current world order is a tall order. Nevertheless, change is possible.

It starts by imagining a better, post-COP26 world. And that starts by crafting new and better stories. Whatever role marketing will play in this future, it can certainly help to write the stories of a sustainable tomorrow. There’s only one rule: dare to care.

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