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Jan Gooding: The climate emergency is mainstream, but the solutions are not

26 Mar 2020  |  Jan Gooding 
Jan Gooding: The climate emergency is mainstream, but the solutions are not

Marketers are well placed to help people make the difficult choices, writes Jan Gooding as she explores how the climate emergency is changing the way we do business

I can recall the impact of Al Gore and his ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ presentation in 2006 as my first introduction to the issue of global warming. It was overwhelming. And it set off a so-called ‘debate’ between climate change activists and so called ‘deniers’.

Rather like COVID-19, the tension between the human impact and the economic implications have been battling it out ever since. Change was resisted because the cost to the economy and our current way of life felt too high. What to do about it was also difficult to grasp.

Back then, there was considerable focus on the ozone layer and the urgent need to stop manufacturing aerosol. We started recycling. Our children became the educators, bringing homework questionnaires to go through with their parents to evaluate our behaviour.

I remember feeling ashamed because I barely recycled. I could only point to the glass bottles put out every evening for the milkman. And yet the idea of re-using packaging instead of throwing it way, even into a recycling bin, has come back in fashion. Schemes like Loop are exploring how people’s favourite products from major consumer goods companies like P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Nestle and Danone can be sold in reusable containers rather than single use packaging.

My children’s homework taught me about composting, and wormeries, and challenged us about the amount of meat we were eating. Eventually, one of my sons became a committed vegetarian, not because he was upset about killing animals, but because he wanted to stop killing the planet.

The world is united on the importance of this issue

In this year’s IPSOS Mori Global Trends 2020, climate emergency is shown to be the strongest common value among people across the world. What’s more they observe that changing values are translating into changing actions. The formation of the international activist group Extinction Rebellion in 2018 demonstrates the strength of feeling.

Moreover, there is now political weight behind the idea of change, and demand for drastic action at a local level that would have been previously unthinkable.

Extinction Rebellion are challenging our apathy

This year the MRS Impact Conference, was addressed by Paddy Loughman, previously a researcher and brand growth consultant at Wolf Olins and now dedicating his considerable talents to Extinction Rebellion.

The video of Paddy Loughman's presentation is online here and well worth watching.

I was struck with how language has evolved. Paddy described the earth as ‘our only life support system’ and that there is no ‘Planet B’. The key words are not just ‘climate’ they are also ecology, choice, system change, courage and optimism. He defined the purpose of Extinction Rebellion as drawing attention to the denial we are in and helping us overcome it. Like an irritating fire alarm. Except it is up to us to be the fire brigade.

The maths is very simple, the change required is not

Paddy referred to ‘mainstream science’ to underpin the issue and carefully explained the maths. The aim is to keep to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. We are currently at 1.1˚C and if we do nothing we are heading for 4˚C and consequences that are almost beyond comprehension.

He advocated for the pursuit of system change away from one built on fossil fuels. He challenged us to measure and focus on our ‘carbon consumption’ rather than emissions. That caught my attention. That is where we can make a difference, because marketers act at the intersection of production and consumption. We have the insight and creativity to change people’s behaviour.

There is room for optimism

Sustainability is capable of positive transformation just as digital technology has been and marketers are good at harnessing disruption for the benefit of consumers. Recognising that sustainability needs marketing thinking and vice versa is why consultancies like Given were set up ten years ago. Working with businesses like IKEA and P&G to bring these worlds together. We can all learn how to do that.

Worrying about hypocrisy is a distraction

The first question to come at Paddy was about hypocrisy. He had quoted Larry Fink, CEO of Black Rock, acknowledging that 'climate change has become a defining factor for business and there will be a significant reallocation of capital’. Why should we listen to Larry Fink when he still earns $26.5m and continues to invest in coal?

Paddy was emphatic. ‘We are all hypocrites’ he said. ‘If we go down the path of perfection it won’t help. Don’t discount what he is saying because he’s a hypocrite.’ He went on ‘We each need to take steps in the right direction like eating a bit less meat and taking fewer flights.’

This is a big point. We live in a world which is structurally dependent on fossil fuels. Until that changes very few people can avoid being a hypocrite. It is a narrative that discourages people from joining the movement for sustainability and only benefits the fossil fuel companies.

The advantage of doing more than the competition

This is the clue for brands. People want to know what, if anything, companies are doing to change the system now. And how they plan to accelerate that change in the future. If ever the phrase ‘enlightened self-interest’ applied it must surely be over this issue.

The long term is under our noses. The desire to do little things that all add up and head in the right direction will grow. It’s not about getting it perfect but taking meaningful action. Brands that make it easy for customers to do the right thing, like taking away the worst choice completely, will encourage them to switch to them. Rewarding them for doing so is even more important.

For us, getting it right means investing ahead of the curve, learning the new language and protocols, embedding it holistically and not ‘leaving it to the technical experts’.  Now we have all agreed the problem is real, marketing practitioners are well suited to the solution generation required to help brands make the right decision for the climate on behalf of their customers.

The fragility of all our resources

IPSOS Mori point out that resource depletion is another key element of looking after our life support system. Brands will need to take a proactive stance, exploring new technologies and being ready to justify the resources they use. Eco-friendly options may no longer be a ‘nice-to-have’.

Some brands were ahead of their consumers

Five years ago Aviva explored whether it was possible to differentiate by connecting the way people’s pension savings were invested with climate change. Aviva needed no convincing that there were more floods, storms and fires. Our claims data was evidence enough.

I was confident the Aviva brand could stand up to scrutiny from the sceptics. We came up with a proposition along the lines of ‘using your pension savings to invest in the world you want to retire into’. The brand idea at the time was ‘Good Thinking’ and we thought it was an excellent example of just that.

Consumers really didn’t get it, but they would now

Concepts were developed showing how our pension funds were invested in renewable energy, and other carbon reducing activities. But consumers simply couldn’t get their heads around it. Retirement was as remote as climate change. So, reluctantly, we set the work aside. I strongly believe that if someone found those concept boards and tested them again now it would be a winner.

We have watched the reaction to the very suggestion of a shortage of toilet paper. There is a huge amount of education still to be done to prepare people for change, but it is evident people are ready for it. Marketers are well placed to lead on this and help people make the difficult choices.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), LGBT equality charity Stonewall, and the president of the Market Research Society. She writes for Mediatel News each month.

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