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Helen Brain 

COP26: moving from ambitious talk to the starting line

COP26: moving from ambitious talk to the starting line

Strategy LeadersMaintaining profit means investing in new models of consumption, writes MediaCom's strategy director 

With COP26 now in the rear-view mirror, it's important to remember that, whatever the merits of what has been agreed by world leaders in Glasgow this month, we are already at code red for humanity.

But, beyond the words and pledges by governments, COP26 can be a catalyst for change if we come together in a productive and actionable way.

Customers are looking to businesses and governments to lead the way. But what does this mean for brands?

First off – don’t make the mistake of getting stuck into green comms for a month, to never talk about it again. Consumers will call you out, rightly, for greenwashing.

Brands should only align with sustainability and the environment if they have hard evidence of making real life positive change. For marketers, this means bringing the environment into propositions and communications.

There is a huge role for our industry to play here.

Brands can make the climate change conversation mainstream

Currently 90% of climate communications reach just 20% of all people, and as little as 0.6% of online communications from leading FTSE100 companies focus on the topic.

COP is proving to be the event that opens the floodgates to climate change content that reaches and is relevant to a far wider section of society – just look at October’s editorial from The Sun, or the upcoming climate change stories from the nation’s favourite soaps. We need to rally around this moment and make the conversation far more inclusive and understandable.

Communications should be specific and truthful

A global review found that 40% of green claims could be misleading, and with the recent CMA Green Claims Code introducing new guidelines on how not to greenwash, it is imperative that brands make sure they are playing by the rules if they want to create positive change though their marketing, and also regain trust in the advertising industry itself.

While we are seeing many brands making huge commitments to achieving net zero targets, what is sometimes missing is the detail on how those targets will be achieved.

This isn’t always possible – we are tackling a challenge unlike any other let’s not forget – people no longer want to hear about ambitions, they want to see hard, brand-specific proof.

This need to be specific isn’t just a citizen demand, it’s also baked into the CMA Green Claims Code: “Claims must be truthful and accurate: Businesses must live up to the claims they make about their products, services, brands and activities.”

Progress over perfection should be the mantra

We have less than 10 years to prevent irreversible damage caused by climate change – we need to start changing consumption models now to protect against further negative impacts on people and planet.

Maintaining profit means investing in new models of consumption, such as:

  • Changing WHAT we consume: think about the benefits and growth opportunities in plant-based foods vs meat, or EVs vs petrol and diesel vehicles for example
  • Changing HOW we consume: look at refillable retail models like Tesco’s partnership with Loop, or dress rental from Selfridges for inspiration
  • Changing behaviour AFTER consumption: reusing, recycling and reselling have already become a standard part of life for many people thanks to the likes of eBay and Gumtree – how else can these behaviours be enabled by business model innovation?

The starter's gun has gone off, we are now running the race of our lives. The next few years will see some brands left behind if they fail to work to reduce the catastrophic impact of global warming on people, the planet and indeed profit.

Helen Brain is strategy director and joint head of the Social Change Hub at MediaCom

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