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Sustainability Takes Priority on the Road to Recovery

8 MINUTE READ | April 7, 2021

Sustainability Takes Priority on the Road to Recovery

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Abby Long

Abby is PMG’s senior managing editor, where she leads the company’s editorial program and manages the PMG Blog and Insights Hub. As a writer, editor, and marketing communications strategist with nearly a decade of experience, Abby's work in showcasing PMG’s unique expertise through POVs, research reports, and thought leadership regularly informs business strategy and media investments for some of the most iconic brands in the world. Named among the AAF Dallas 32 Under 32, her expertise in advertising, media strategy, and consumer trends has been featured in Ad Age, Business Insider, and Digiday.

Recent news events and trending topics across social platforms have spanned critical business practices involving corporate governance and labor rights, equity and environmental actions, a unique news cycle that when viewed collectively, is indicative of a much larger global trend that’s captivated consumer attention and wallet share. 

Related: United, Apple, JPMorgan, and more make public statements defending voter rights in a wave of corporate backlash over Georgia (and other states) new voting laws. 

With life slowing down and more time spent at home (and in solitude) during the past year, people became more grounded in their priorities and what’s most important to them as individuals and families. As we now know, some of the most critical and influential moments of 2020 weren’t exclusive to the pandemic but arose during various crises, including America’s reckoning with racial inequity, a constant stream of natural disasters from wildfires to tropical storms, the fight for freedom and fair elections during contentious political battles in various countries, and massive undertakings in global coordination across science, technology, and government to slow the pandemic and save lives. 

Among these moments of inflection, the need to identify sustainable solutions to address global challenges became even more evident, with increasing pressure from consumers, business leaders, and government officials. Now more than ever, consumers care about where the food they consume, the clothes they buy, and the products they use come from, and they are increasingly using their voices and spending power to champion their priorities and support the brands and businesses that align with them.

After seeing public-private partnerships lead the charge in developing multiple COVID-19 vaccines in record-breaking time, analysts note that consumers believe it’s imperative for corporations and governments to work together, influencing policy and taking action to drive real change.

According to Morning Consult, roughly three in four adults agree that corporations, governments and individuals have a responsibility to act, meaning that over “half of the public said both corporations and governments have ‘a lot’ of influence to alter the impact of climate change, compared with 34 percent who said the same for individuals.” Many said they consider their individual environmental impact on a daily basis, with three out of four aiming to reduce their carbon emissions, water use, and adjust their daily behaviors and purchasing habits. Two out of three adults said they support higher vehicle fuel economy and stricter building efficiency standards.

As a result, sustainability and corporate social responsibility have taken hold of the cultural zeitgeist, pushing brands to take a leading role in addressing the climate crisis and social inequity as a core part of recovery from the pandemic, while establishing a more emotional connection with their customers along the way. 

A few major news developments are driving even more attention to sustainability causes as activism and public interest swells. Here’s what we’re seeing: 

In government: President Biden’s $2.1 trillion infrastructure plan lists dozens of key initiatives and primary objectives related to clean energy development and advancing sustainable energy solutions, transportation infrastructure, environmental protections, and more. Months before unveiling The American Jobs Plan, President Biden signed an executive order suspending fossil fuel development leases on all federal lands, making environmental sustainability a leading priority for the new administration. 

Related: House Democrats partner with prominent NGOs, urging the Federal Reserve to push for more climate-specific action

In Finance: Earlier this year, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, announced it intends to push companies to commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, or else risk losing their support. A recent report found that the 60 largest banks invested more than $3.8 trillion into fossil fuels in the five years since the Paris Climate Accords were signed, sparking growing criticism from watchdogs and banking customers. 

In Culture: Bill Gates’ new book titled “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” remains near the top of nearly every best-seller list, prompting a noteworthy media tour that’s driven plenty of buzz and subsequent conversations. Rounding out the picture, Seaspiracy, the buzzy Netflix documentary that shows a behind-the-scenes look at the fishing industry and its many challenges, has renewed calls for sustainable fishing while it continues to claim a top spot on the Trending Netflix Movies Lists.

The timing of these updates couldn’t be more critical. 

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum unveiled its Global Risks Report 2021, classifying climate action failure, extreme weather, and biodiversity loss, alongside infectious diseases, as the top global risks for the next ten years. And in the latest Global Web Index study, close to 70 percent of consumers in the U.S./U.K. believe that corporations should do more to address environmental issues.

This confluence of crises and rising consumer demand have driven a groundswell of newfound corporate communications throughout the past few weeks, shedding light on how marketing communications and the social internet now play a leading role in boosting awareness of responsible business practices (or challenging those that aren’t), showcasing initiatives, and challenging the status quo as brands take this opportunity to transform purpose statements into progress reports. 

Corporate social responsibility has been a priority for a vast number of brands for many years, though interestingly enough, less than 10 percent of publicly traded companies have a board committee responsible for monitoring and achieving Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) targets. Regardless, trust in science has soared during the pandemic, and brands emerging from the crises of 2020 are more purpose-driven than ever, discovering new ways to unite sustainability with profitability.

Some of the most ambitious climate-related pledges have emerged from Silicon Valley, with big tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft entering an unofficial race to be recognized as the most sustainable tech company. In recent months, these companies have reportedly even become the biggest purchasers of clean energy, using their influence to sway the global economy to prioritize renewable energy solutions. 

Related: Renewable energy made up the majority of China’s total energy investment for the first time in 2020. 

Companies from bp to Netflix have made headlines in recent weeks with aggressive sustainability pledges and updated progress reports, using marketing communications channels and product packaging to map out and reinforce their commitment to sustainability and environmental protections. 

In retail, Nike unveiled its latest Impact Report, featuring new branding, dynamic messaging, and a Tweetstorm that outlined the brand’s bold and ambitious targets for 2025 against the company’s focus areas of People, Planet, and Play. Along with these communications, Nike has made significant investments in sustainable materials and clothing, launching an entire catalog with products made from eco-friendly materials, all under its Move to Zero branding

Starbucks’ latest campaign also focuses on sustainability, featuring a two-minute video on YouTube and IGTV broadcasting status updates on the commitments made by the brand in the past year to reduce emissions and waste while conserving energy and water. To meet customer demands, Starbucks also introduced strawless lids and a pilot program testing reusable cups, enabling consumers to take part in the brands’ efforts to reduce single-use packaging as well as order plant-based menu items

Many brands are just getting started on their sustainability journey, but using their market power to advance new initiatives across all aspects of their business. For instance, Netflix’s Net Zero + Nature proclaims that Netflix will achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2022, and every year thereafter, a move that establishes a top-notch advisory group of industry leaders and scientists to craft and institute policies that will soon impact countless industries operating alongside Netflix, from Hollywood filmmaking to business travel and corporate marketing.

For some brands, there’s only so much innovation to be had throughout the supply chain, with the majority of a product’s carbon output actually taking place during customer use. In Tide’s latest advertising, the brand speaks to this reality, showing how Tide customers can help do their part to reduce carbon emissions by making greener choices, like using cold water instead of hot on laundry day. 

Other companies, like Mercedes, have unveiled punchy advertising campaigns with cinematic TV spots focused solely on showcasing their sustainability pledges, reinforcing with compelling messaging that it will take everyone working together to tackle climate change. In the automotive industry, the race to advance fuel efficiency and electric vehicles (EVs) is on, with Chevy, BMW, and Audi, among others doubling down on growing their EV lineups at an affordable price range. Consumers are buying into this trend as well with Morgan Stanley reporting that over 181,000 fully electric vehicles were sold worldwide in February, up 138 percent compared to February 2020. 

Tesla currently leads the sector with an affordable lineup of in-demand EV models, experiencing meteoric growth and supporting a growing subculture (see r/TeslaMotors for an impressive example of community building around brand loyalty) that has emerged to support greener lifestyle choices, from Tesla purchases to flexitarian diets. 

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As we enter this new era of business transformation and draw closer to the highly-anticipated 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) scheduled for this November in Glasgow, industry heavyweights are using consumer demand as a tailwind for enacting real change and making substantial progress. In the meantime, we can expect even more consumers and brands to prioritize sustainable solutions and identify the best path towards greater sustainability, equity, and more.

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