Are consumers tired of Earth Day “awareness” messages?

Since the 1970s, the purpose of Earth Day has been to highlight the urgent actions needed to save our planet. This is indeed a necessary and urgent cause given that the latest IPCC report was a damning reminder of the catastrophic impacts of man-made climate change. But it’s precisely this “urgent action” from brands that seems to be missing in Earth Day communications.

But like many one-time “days” throughout the year that pledge to do good for the world, Earth Day has become something of a commodity for brands and organizations. Some initiatives and campaigns aspire to run throughout the year or are meaningfully tied to a goal, while others are just a flash in the pan.

Either way, April 22 has proven over the years to be an auspicious calendar date for marketers. Some also choose to observe the end of March when Earth Hour could be set. With a glut of brand communications during this time, have consumers toughened up when Earth Day rolls around every year?

Moving from awareness to action

Suzy Goulding, Director of MullenLowe Sustainability, says Asia-Pacific Campaign that she’s not a big fan of “days”.

“They encourage a lot of virtue signals from brands without any real substance or action behind the message and the pretty images. That said, using something like Earth Day as an anchor for a company’s sustainability commitments and actions can help galvanize customers and employees to get involved in some way. another by providing a focal point,” she says.

Goulding argues that awareness doesn’t really get “stale,” but needs to be backed by real commitment and action: “To build trust and credibility today, brands need to follow the word – nothing less seems hollow and inauthentic”.

“Very few brands or companies actually do anything meaningful for Earth Day. If you’re serious about sustainability, then you’re probably already making changes to your business and your products.”
—Suzy Goulding, MullenLowe Sustainability

Raising awareness, in many cases, can be a powerful communication objective to shed light on issues, especially those that are often overlooked in the mainstream media. But one could argue that climate change is no longer a marginalized issue thanks to the work of scientists and activists. Brands have also been talking a lot about sustainability awareness for decades, whether or not the goal behind sustainability communications is to generate profit.

Graham Drew, Creative Director at Gray Malaysia, says Asia-Pacific Campaign that nothing drives brand results more than a moral crisis.

“Customers have woken up and an ostentatious conscience is now a very real business advantage for brands,” he says. “So Earth Day has become a broad platform for all brands to communicate their sustainability and CSR credentials. It’s great for business, and it’s also good for the planet. “

What consumers want, adds Drew, are smart, authentic and tangible action points for brands and “the greenwashing gestures of a few years ago won’t be enough anymore.” And therefore, consumers are willing to pay extra for a product with a visibly sustainable supply chain.

“What people want is ‘show me how I can do better’, make it easier for me to choose, and I’ll reward you with my loyalty, because it makes me feel a little less ‘shit’ about the impact I have on the planet.”
—Graham Drew, Gray

While this is an idealistic model of consumer behavior, it still does not explain ever-growing categories such as factory farming or fast fashion. For example, Chinese fast-fashion brand Shein has seen astronomical growth in recent years, including a Valuation at $100 billion—despite a lack of transparency around allegations of exploited labor and the chemical compounds used in his clothes. Shein’s fast manufacturing and record price model has even aggravated a new term…high-speed mode.

Drew may be cynical about what constitutes tangible change for brands, but remains optimistic now is a “watershed” moment, as it means billions and billions of dollars are now being pumped in to make better choices.

“This year, in March, we saw the United Nations Environment Committee agree on a globally binding treaty on plastics, the biggest moment for the environment since 2016. Global brands like Unilever, Mondelez, Mars and Nestlé have all backed the treaty and will now have to drastically limit their plastic emissions. Change is on the way,” he says.

Hyundai today launched a sustainability campaign titled “Goal of the Century” featuring footballer Steven Gerrard and K-pop group BTS. Based on a press release, the company aims to “unite humanity through football and encourage universal support for a sustainable future”.

The campaign is said to be part of Hyundai’s mission to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, but despite the star-studded film, it does not highlight how brand ambassadors “promote various environmental and social sustainability projects. throughout 2022”. Instead of clearly spelling out the tangible efforts of brand ambassadors, it reads as another way to leverage celebrity status to elevate the brand, as well as touting its partnership with the FIFA World Cup.

Stephen Tracy, COO at Milieu Insight, echoes Drew’s sentiment and adds that consumer expectations of brands when it comes to committing to social causes like Earth Day may vary by company. or industry.

For example, within the F&B industry, more consumers are demanding ethically sourced products, supporting local farmers or producers, and looking for alternatives to meat. While in the automotive industry, some consumers now expect more traditional brands to focus on and produce more hybrid or all-electric alternatives to combustion engines.

“As a benchmark, I think there’s an underlying expectation among many consumers that brands should take steps to ‘do no harm’ and work towards net zero impact on the environment,” Tracy says. .

And because public awareness of sustainability continues to rise, it has paved the way for growing expectations and acceptance of new rules and regulations and any inconvenience this may bring, says Kelly Johnston, COO at Sandpiper. .

“With these dynamics in play, greenwashing is no longer an option and we’re seeing companies responding with more sophisticated and thoughtful messaging around milestones and events such as Earth Day,” says Johnston.

This Earth Day, she hopes to see more local businesses in Asia find their voice in these important conversations and shout out about their sustainable development goals and tangible achievements.

An unmet demand for sustainability

According to a 2021 study by Forrester, consumers prefer brands that stay true to their values. In fact, consumers surveyed in Asian countries preferred this more than their Western counterparts. And more than half of adults online in five different countries say they prefer buying from brands that stay true to their own values ​​rather than reflect the latest trend.

Vivek Kumar, CMO at WWF Singapore, tells Asia-Pacific Campaign that consumers have become more aware and expect clearer action from brands.

“Dates such as Earth Day or Earth Hour remind individuals and businesses of the importance of building sustainable businesses and practices,” he says. “But consumers are also in a much better position to identify greenwashing in brands.

“Consumers don’t accept vague promises of environmental friendliness and sustainability from companies without solid proof.”
—Vivek Kumar, WWF

For this reason, brands should keep these factors in mind and work with external advisors, if necessary, to ensure their sustainability claims are verified and factual. Corporate transparency can give consumers more optimism and confidence to support brands on their sustainability journey. And in a world where everyone is constantly bombarded with different calls to action, it’s imperative to harness the power of creativity to ensure sustainability messages are heard, adds Kumar.

Despite clear evidence that consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about sustainability, a recent study by WWF Singapore and Accenture found that there is a clear and unmet consumer demand for more sustainable products and services in Singapore. .

“Consumers want sustainable products to deliver better end-to-end value, from eco-friendly components to greener last-mile delivery. A third of consumers [in Singapore] are willing to pay a premium of up to 10% for sustainable alternatives,” says Kumar. “Brands and CMOs need to take these consumer trends into account and respond to them in their strategies, products and services.”

The “end-to-end value” that Kumar talks about includes sustainably sourcing materials or selecting services until a brand completes its job or disposes of a product.

“There is simply no other way,” he stresses. “Brands need to take meaningful and concrete steps towards sustainability. And if a company wants to “sustain” its business in the long term, it must take its environmental impact seriously.

This story first appeared on Asia-Pacific Campaign.