This Earth Day brands must make room for net-positive

Earth Day approaches, and consumer and media attention will be drawn even more sharply to sustainability and environmental issues. For brands, this is their opportunity to trot out the newest net-zero initiatives, manufacturing plants that run on wind power, and eco-friendly product lines made from recycled products.

But it won’t be enough unless brands stop focusing on harm reduction and begin talking about what it takes to thrive.

Over the years, there’s been a disconnect between consumers and brands when it comes to sustainability.

Brands’ actions feel inauthentic to audiences. We know 80% of global consumers believe brands must be transparent about their environmental impact, but we also know only 38% believe their claims.

There even seems to be disagreement about the term “sustainability” itself. Leaders in this space don’t even use the word, and the most sustainable brands say “sustainable” 90% less often than other top brands do on their webpages. Even Patagonia, easily the leader in mindshare around the current sustainability movement, balks at the term:

“At Patagonia, we don’t use the word ‘sustainable.’ Why? Because we recognize we are part of the problem... you either are sustainable or you are not."
- Beth Thoren, Dir. Environmental Action at Patagonia

So how can brands overcome this disconnect? At Northbound, we’ve been running research to learn how brands can build brand integrity, how they can make their actions stand out, and how major players stack up in the age of sustainability. The full findings are coming, but one thing is immediately clear: with sustainability, brands are stuck in a race to stand still.

Brands are likely contributing to this disconnect with consumers because their “net zero” narratives have not made room for a discussion around net-positive possibilities. Sustainability is itself a neutral word. It’s about maintenance. Protection. Doing no harm. Even the UN defines it neutrally:

“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
- United Nations Brundtland Commission, 1987

And brands continue to define their “neutral” narratives and actions as “positive.” Paradoxically, we are “progressing to zero.”

Company Sustainability Statement Audit

Today’s technology companies “neutral” narratives.

This isn’t to say that these initiatives aren’t important, or that addressing carbon emissions isn’t a valid activity. But these types of narratives, where progress is measured and framed by what’s not done, leave little room for ambition and positive action. The terminology used at the organizational level to encompass these narratives is not much better. Brands need to ask themselves how they can frame their actions and values as a positive. How can they move to a positive narrative that shows how the world can thrive, not just survive.

Common Sustainability Terms Chart

Current terms have their constraints. How can brands use them to encompass endless possibilities?

To transcend the terms most commonly used and begin building a positive narrative, first ask…

  1. How is the world better as our company grows? What does paradise look like with us in it? To figure out how to get there, first capture where you want to go.
  2. Then ask, how do we encompass that goodness? Do we need to evolve the terms we currently use? Is it possible to redefine what CSR or ESG means to us in a way that makes room for “thriving”? Or do we need to find new words to describe more of the positive future we envision and less of the bad we’re un-doing?

A simple re-framing can go a long way, but it will also take a fundamental shift in how brands communicate. It will be a long journey, so let’s start now.

This Earth Day let’s give our home more than zero. Let’s tell the story of an Earth that thrives, not just survives. 

Get in touch if you'd like to take part in our Sustainability Benchmark research.












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