How can brands battle the climate crisis?

A report by Wolff Olins and Chapter Zero
February 2020

Brands have the power to nudge the behaviours of billions of consumers.

As governments and businesses declare a state of climate emergency and aim for zero carbon emissions, we believe it’s time to use this power for good. That’s why, at the start of a new decade, we’re celebrating ‘zero heroes’ - brands encouraging positive behaviours in a time of crisis.

Together, Wolff Olins and Chapter Zero are arming boards and marketing leaders with the arguments they need to ensure brand is a force for good.

Didn’t brand get us into this crisis?

You may think that brand got us into this crisis by encouraging over-consumption and by greenwashing the culprits. And yet, brands change how people think, feel and act, on a massive scale. So, could brand also get us out?

It’s our fundamental belief that brand can make a difference. Indeed, our central hypothesis in this report is that brand can be used to trigger global impact, nudging more sustainable behaviours amongst billions of consumers.

A huge commercial opportunity

The latest consumer research tells us that - when it comes to driving positive impact - people now expect businesses to take on greater responsibility. Businesses who are alive to these changing attitudes now have a huge opportunity: to use their brand to win over consumers on a massive scale.

This can be tough for big established businesses who need to transition towards zero carbon operations – and utilise their brand for more than greenwashing.

But the case for radical change is no longer just an ethical one; it’s a question of how much risk companies and their investors are willing to bear at a time when new competitors are taking the hassle out of being responsible - and scaling at pace (not to mention attracting the best talent).

Such an existential issue should therefore be the concern of company CEOs and their boards, not purely sustainability officers.

Why does the world need better brands?

“We face a direct existential threat…Our fate is in our hands.” António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

The case for urgent change has been made.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in September 2018, we have 12 years to avoid a catastrophic outcome for the planet.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report suggests global citizens see the danger as clear and present; they fear environmental disaster - driven by things like climate change and extreme weather events - more so than any technological or societal threats to their safety.

And consumers are demanding that businesses change too. Almost two-thirds (60%) of the UK public believe that the chief executives of corporations should be leading the national fight against climate change.*

* According to research conducted by consultancy Kin&Co, the survey quizzed two groups of 1,203 and 2,084 adults respectively on their attitudes to sustainable business and climate action.

With this urgent need for change comes an opportunity: Organisations who take the lead on sustainability can differentiate themselves from the competition in a way that’s ever more relevant. In short, they can build a more compelling brand.

The CBI’s director general Carolyn Fairbairn has underlined the benefits of leading the change:

“Delivering a net zero economy by 2050 will require urgent action from businesses across all sectors. Companies must respond to growing demand from investors and customers by making climate change a Boardroom priority. Firms that act now will not only play their part in avoiding the devastating impact of climate change but also steal a march on their competitors.”

The good news: brands are beginning to wake up

Radical change is needed and business is key to driving this change; not just companies involved in heavy industry or power generation, but also consumer brands in sectors like automotive, fashion, retail, travel and food.

The good news is that businesses are responding. For example, the bosses of 181 of the US’s 200 biggest companies have changed the official definition of “the purpose of a corporation” from making the most money possible for shareholders to “improving our society” by also looking out for employees, caring for the environment and dealing ethically.*

* Business Roundtable, August 2019

The bad news: brands risk becoming bland

The bad news is that there are now a lot of brands telling a very similar story about making the world a better place: SC Johnson is ‘A Family Company at Work for a Better World’. Caterpillar ‘provides solutions that support communities and protect the planet.’ Whole Foods ‘nourishes people and the planet.’

The danger here is that, if everyone is jumping on the same bandwagon, telling the same story and using the same worthy, rational language, brands lose their power. They have zero impact.

Zero impact brands: the last thing the world needs

Neutral. Zero impact. No net contribution. These are things that companies want to achieve in terms of carbon emissions. But they’re the last things any company should want its brand to be.

As more and more companies respond to the climate emergency by targeting carbon neutrality and zero impact, there’s a big risk that brands (whose transformative power stems from being emotive and unique) all start to look and feel the same: neutral.

Remember: consumers still need to be inspired

As one recent study* points out, 55% of consumers say companies have a more important role than governments today in creating a better future. But that doesn’t mean the brands can just assume people want to hear about all their latest CSR initiatives.

*Global ‘Meaningful Brands’ Report 2019 - based on 1,800 brands and 350,000 respondents across 31 countries.

Indeed, the same study highlights that consumers would not care if 77% of everyday brands disappeared. In Europe, that rises to 81%.

In the UK, while 90% of the British population expect brands to provide content, 63% believe the content being created by brands in Britain is poor, irrelevant and fails to deliver.

That’s a lot of brands already turning consumers off. And just because consumers care about the planet, doesn’t mean they’ll care about your supply chain management.

The latest consumer insight: People believe climate change is real, but disagree on who should be doing more.

A new YouGov study of 30,000 people in 28 countries and regions has uncovered that “climate change is happening” and “humanity is at least partly responsible” is a view held by the majority of consumers across the world.

Depending on the country, only between 0% and 6% of people believe that “no climate change whatsoever is taking place”, and likewise only between 1% and 9% in each nation say that climate change is happening, but that it has “nothing to do with human activity.” In both cases, the USA is where these views are most likely to be held.

Moreover, most people expect climate change to have a large or moderate impact on their lives.

When it comes to taking responsibility, everyone takes their fair share of the blame for the current state of affairs: a majority in all countries believe international bodies, national governments of both wealthy and developing countries, businesses and industry, and individuals to all be “very” or “fairly” responsible for the current situation with climate change. When asked which countries in particular they blame, the finger is pointed primarily at China and the USA, with India now in third place.

However, over 40% of people in the US and most European nations surveyed already feel that they are doing ‘as much as they reasonably can’ on a personal level, whilst governments and businesses should be doing much more.

Indeed, in some European countries people believe that individuals lack the power to contribute to the fight. People seem especially disenfranchised in Germany and Norway, where 54% say individuals have little to no power to combat climate change.

New research from Humankind - qualitative research experts specialising in insight into ‘for good’ organisations - suggests that consumers feel bitter because the responsibility to ‘do better’ is constantly put on them.

“They (big business) are the ones who wrap stuff in plastic, to save their overheads… yet we are the ones left with the problem of how to dispose of it and being made to feel guilty about it, when we didn’t even ask for it in the first place.” Humankind UK qualitative research, 2019

When people feel they’re already doing what they can (e.g. making changes like reusing bags and turning off the lights), they resent being asked to do more and to make sacrifices, especially when they see those responsible for the problem doing so little.

“I recycle, I buy organic chicken, I look where things are sourced… but there’s so many things you don’t think about and don’t have the time to think about, I can’t do everything all the time!” Humankind UK qualitative research, 2019

Given all this, there is clearly still a big opportunity for brands to make conscious consumption feel desirable, rather than like another set of chores - where the onus is on the individual to take on yet more responsibility.

It’s time to celebrate the heroes, not shame the zeroes

Brands derive their value from being unique, memorable and emotionally powerful.

That’s why, in a collaboration between Wolff Olins and Chapter Zero, we’re shining a light on ‘zero heroes’ - brands who don’t bang on about their low-carbon credentials, but instead make it attractive and easy for consumers to lead lower-carbon lives – with potentially a much larger-scale effect.

By celebrating these kinds of brands, we hope to help board members and marketing leaders to ask the right questions and to steer companies away from all making the same clichéd, neutral - claim: that they exist to ‘make the world a better place’.

How brands can be ‘heroes’

In terms of what behaviours ‘heroes’ should aim to drive, The Grantham Institute (Imperial College London’s hub for climate change and the environment) have recently published ‘9 things you can do about climate change’ - a helpful list of the most achievable ways individuals can personally make a difference. In summary, the behaviours they encourage are:

  1. Make your voice heard by those in power
  2. Cut back on flying
  3. Leave the car at home, and help cut air pollution
  4. Eat less meat and dairy
  5. Respect and protect green spaces
  6. Invest your money wisely
  7. Cut consumption and waste
  8. Reduce your energy use, and bills
  9. Talk about the changes you make

Seven ‘Zero Hero’ principles

Below, we have formulated seven principles for how brands can encourage these more sustainable behaviours and have brought them to life with examples from across a range of sectors and markets.

1. Don’t boast, nudge

Brands aiming to inspire change should resist the temptation to brag about themselves. Instead they should offer millions of people ways to make small changes to their behaviours. For example…

Greggs: Making vegan choices mainstream

Greggs trades from around 2,000 outlets in the UK and sells 1.5 million sausage rolls a week. In 2019, they created a new vegan option with Quorn (a brand that is itself encouraging consumers to ‘Take a step in the right direction’). Despite the objections of Piers Morgan, Greggs’ vegan sausage roll was launched in response to public demand after an online petition by Peta was signed by more than 20,000 people. Greggs has since reported half-year sales rises of 14.7% and like-for-like sales growth in managed stores of 10.5%. And the bakery chain’s CEO, Roger Whiteside, has even announced that he is now a vegan himself.

Best Buy: Unhooking people from the cycle of throwaway culture

Best Buy, the giant electricals retailer, is helping customers use electronics more sustainably and encouraging them to break the cycle of ‘throwaway culture’ that has become the norm in the industry. Best Buy does this by building strong relationships between staff, communities and consumers: it trains employees to promote energy-efficient models across all its product lines; it has a network of Teen Tech Centers across the US, preparing teens from underserved communities for the tech-reliant jobs of the future; and, since 2009, it has recycled 2 billion pounds of consumer electronics at its more than 1,000 stores and kept tons more out of landfills by offering repairs and trade-ins.

KeepCup: Getting coffee lovers into great habits

As Abigail Forsyth, KeepCup’s Co-Founder says, “Many small acts make a phenomenal difference.” Since the first KeepCups were sold to coffee-loving Melbournians nearly ten years ago at a small design market, the brand has helped to kick start behaviour change, from discard to reuse. Today, KeepCups are used in more than 65 countries around the world, diverting millions of disposable cups from landfill every day.

2. Normalise the new

Brands can help to make adopting new behaviours easier by framing them as the ‘normal thing to do’ rather than as a radical (and therefore risky or unusual) choices. For example…

Bulb: Making switching to renewables a no-brainer

Bulb, the UK energy company, only launched in 2015, but now already has 1.6 million members in the UK. Success wasn’t built simply by shouting about the company’s green credentials. Indeed, despite using only renewable energy, Bulb is also one of the most competitively-priced providers in the market and has been able to effectively steal unhappy customers from unloved incumbents like British Gas and E.ON by offering good customer service, low prices and easy-to-understand bills alongside a promise to only use 100% renewable energy. Bulb is a brand that makes embracing renewables seem like the smart choice, rather than an unusual one.

Oatly: Stopping alternative products from seeming worthy and niche

Oatly is a vegan food brand from Sweden which produces alternatives to dairy products from oats. Its launch of oat milk as ‘Like milk, but for humans’ aimed to position the product as an actively better choice for your personal health (as well as the planet’s) rather than an ‘alternative’ or worthy product. As Oatly’s creative director, Michael Lee, notes, “It just becomes lame when you start preaching it in your communications.” The brand ensured mainstream appeal by hiring baristas to embed itself into coffee culture coffee and targeted flexitarians and meat reducers, not just hardcore vegans. Sales surges of Oatly in the US (where Oatly is now teaming up with Starbucks) and Europe is also driving rapid investment in new, sustainable production plants.

Salesforce: Changing the way companies measure their success

Salesforce is an American cloud-based software company that has built a $13 billion business around helping companies track their sales metrics; now it’s helping them track “green” metrics, too. As Fortune’s ‘Sustainability All Stars’ report notes, its new app lets Salesforce customers measure and analyse carbon emissions across their operations, including the equipment in their data centres and their employees’ business travel. Currently in a 10-customer pilot program, the app is part of a broader Salesforce campaign to normalise the idea of transparently reporting environmental impact to shareholders - something Salesforce has won plaudits from securities law experts for doing in its own annual filings.

3. Lead (don’t follow) your industry

Brands can establish their leadership credentials and drive widespread change by calling out the big problems that face their industry as a whole - and then inviting others to collaborate and take responsibility together, rather than simply going it alone. For example…

KLM: Changing attitudes to work and leisure travel

Dutch carrier KLM’s CEO, Pieter Elbers, has made clear that sustainable development in aviation is not a ‘one-airline-topic’. KLM believe that actual progress will only be made by working together as an industry and thus have launched their ‘Fly Responsibly’ initiative, inviting airlines, partners, customers and employees alike to share in KLM’s existing sustainability practices and tools, and provide KLM with their respective insights in return. In its advertising, KLM even asked travelers to pack light or simply not to fly - and instead to think about more environmentally friendly options like rail or coach for short-haul trips.

Triodos: Showing people that their investments can make a world of difference

Founded in the Netherlands in 1980, Triodos has more than half a million customers across Europe, offering current accounts in the Netherlands, UK, Spain and Germany. Triodos only lends money to organisations and projects that are “making a positive difference to society,” and aims to get people to really think about what their bank is doing with their money. “Money doesn’t have to be invested in the arms trade, fossil fuels and tobacco – it can be used to do good things that help build the society we want to live in,” says the bank.

Hilton: Putting guests in charge of their stay

100 years after its foundation, Hilton Hotels is finding new ways to make the industry more sustainable and keep its brand relevant. According to a survey of 72,000 Hilton guests, social, environmental and ethical considerations are central to their buying preferences, especially those younger than 25 years old. That’s why Hilton has committed to being the first major hotel chain to use science-based strategies to help preserve our natural resources. Hilton’s ‘Travel with Purpose’ strategy sees a focus on reducing water usage, sending zero soap to landfills and, in 2020, launching its Connected Room app across 200 hotels, enabling guests to track and control the impact of their room’s A/C, heating and lights.

4. Ask people to make a choice, not a sacrifice

Brands can persuade people to make more sustainable choices if they position their offerings as not just a ‘substitute’ or a ‘sacrifice’, but instead as more rigorously and carefully designed (and thus better than the competition, not just better for the planet). For example…

Everlane: Encouraging people to choose long-lasting style over fast fashion

Everlane is a US clothing retailer selling affordable, high-quality basics like $100 cashmere sweaters, $15 pima cotton T-shirts and $65 Japanese denim jeans. It launched in 2010 with a concept of ‘radical transparency’, offering the customer a full breakdown of how much it costs to make each product, from the price of the raw materials and transportation to exactly how much of a markup Everlane would take. The brand’s design aesthetic eschews trends and high colour in favour of a timeless no-nonsense and crucially, long-lasting style that flies in the face of fast fashion.

Seventh Generation: Changing the way generations care for their homes

Seventh Generation is the largest eco-friendly cleaning supplies seller in the US and, since its acquisition in 2016, it’s one of Unilever’s 28 Sustainable Living Brands - which grew 69% faster than the rest of the business in 2018, compared to 46% in 2017. The brand’s name is inspired by its mission to create “a consumer revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations.” By highlighting that plant-based cleaning products can deliver the powerful efficacy that consumers are looking for, Seventh Generation ensures people feel they’re getting a high-performance product that’s good for their homes as well as their conscience.

Deciem: Making ‘abnormal’ choices feel highly desirable

Deciem proudly describes itself as the ‘Abnormal Beauty Company’. It started trading in 2013, received investment from Estée Lauder in 2017, and now owns and operates more than 10 brands in the beauty world. In 2019, Deciem closed its website and stores on Black Friday, stating that “We no longer feel that Black Friday is an earth or consumer-friendly event”. This kind of action is a demonstration of how the brand is redefining what it means to be a ‘quality’ choice in the beauty category - making sustainability and ethical behaviours central to its definition, not just a bolt-on. Indeed, the brand states that: “Quality today means being authentic, being different, being functional, being beautiful and being sensibly priced, even to the wealthy. We choose to serve the educated, the curious and the intelligent who appreciate our dedication to this very genuine definition of quality.”

5. Be part of a league

Brands can drive up public consciousness - and demand for - sustainable practices by signing up to cross-category clubs, leadership initiatives and leagues dedicated to driving positive change. For example…

The RE100: Creating a club that companies want to be in

The Renewable Energy 100 is a league of the world’s most influential companies, committed to 100% renewable power by 2050 at the latest. Led by The Climate Group in partnership with CDP, RE100’s purpose is to accelerate change towards zero carbon grids, at global scale. RE100’s members include globally famous brands IKEA, Apple, Aviva, BT and Google. RE100 has now surpassed a 200-member milestone, driving 220 TWh of renewable electricity demand -– almost enough to power Indonesia.

B Corps: Establishing a badge that brands can be proud to wear

Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. B Corps now include well-known brands like innocent, Patagonia, The Body Shop, Ella’s Kitchen, Allbirds, Intrepid Travel and The Guardian. The B Corp community works toward reduced inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high quality jobs with dignity and purpose. B Corps also form a community of leaders and drive a global movement of people using business as a force for good.

Chapter Zero: Arming people at the top table with the right arguments

Chapter Zero is a network of company chairs, committee chairs and non-executive directors, committed to developing their knowledge of the implications of climate change for UK business. Given the far-reaching impact and implications, Chapter Zero’s purpose is to enable these directors to understand how likely climate change is to affect their companies and sectors, and to encourage their boards to hold informed discussions and respond effectively to the climate change challenge. The name of the network, Chapter Zero, reflects the drive towards a net zero carbon economy and the major role business will play in achieving it.

6. Commit to learning and experimenting

Brands don’t have to claim to be perfect in order to positively influence behaviour. A commitment to experimenting, learning and collaborating can help brands to understand and connect more deeply with their consumers. For example…

IKEA: Giving a space and a voice to radical localism and activism

Last year, IKEA opened the world’s most sustainable IKEA store and a new Learning Lab in Greenwich, London. Since its opening, IKEA Greenwich has received an ‘Outstanding’ BREEAM certification – the highest award for sustainable construction. “The store takes sustainability to the next level, not just in its design and architecture, but also as it was built with the local community in mind. We want to inspire and enable Londoners to live a more sustainable life at home, through workshops and activities.” says Helen Aylett, IKEA Greenwich store manager. In a world of digital shopping, IKEA Greenwich is a refreshing reason to go in store.

Loop by TerraCycle: Making frequent sustainable choices highly convenient

Loop is a new platform aiming for zero-waste packaging through a “milkman model” - delivering goods in durable, reusable containers. Loop works in partnership with big brands, helping them to test new packaging concepts at scale. Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Nestlé, Mars, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo have all redesigned their packaging to participate in Loop’s pilot program. Products from orange juice and mayonnaise to hand soap and detergent come in multi-use containers. Even toothbrushes are reusable, with the head detaching from the lower half; new sticks of deodorant can be placed into recommissioned bases. “It has the same convenience of disposability,” founder Tom Szaky says. “This is how we move packaging and products from being disposable and owned by the consumer to being durable and borrowed by the consumer. Packaging becomes a service.”

Budweiser: Inviting the whole nation to work together on sustainable solutions

Budweiser is helping to shift popular attitudes towards sustainability, even using its 2018’s Superbowl TV advertising to announce that Budweiser is “Now brewed with wind power. For a better tomorrow.” The brand has set 2025 sustainability goals around four pillars: climate, water stewardship, packaging and smart agriculture. This has led to experimental new advertising; new partnerships with transportation players such as Nikola Motors and Tesla; a renewable energy deal with utility company Enel; and collaboration between the University of Idaho, Washington State University and barley growers to trial new water conservation and smart-irrigation practices.

7. Create new patterns of consumption - and business models

Brands can design whole new patterns of consumption that create new and different opportunities to monestise relationships with consumers - which is no bad thing if consumers feel they’re getting great value, as well as reducing their environmental impact.

Olio: Making wasting food feel weirder than sharing it

Olio is a food recycling app designed to tackle the problem of food waste by allowing people to share unwanted food. Users take pictures of their unwanted food and invite fellow Olio users who live nearby to collect them. Crucially, the food must be within its use-by date. Olio has also teamed up with 30 organisations, including Sainsbury’s and recipe box firm Hello Fresh. The platform is proudly for-profit, aiming to generate revenue via premium features for frequent users (like unlimited pick ups and first refusal on the best items), as well as via commission on donations and a classified section that gives local businesses the opportunity to communicate with people in their area.

Depop: Giving a platform to young entrepreneurs with a small carbon footprint

Depop is a social shopping app, which blends the aesthetic and social aspects of Instagram with the buy-and-sell format of eBay. Established in 2011, it now has over 15 million users in 147 countries. “Not purchasing new items where possible and recycling things you get tired of leaves you with a pretty small consumption footprint,” says Sylvie Mackower, a 20-year Depop seller. Depop, which generates revenue via transaction charges, helps its sellers make money and makes users feel better about shopping as they’re supporting enterprising individuals, rather than mass producers of fast fashion destined for landfill.

Lush: Showing millions of people that plastic isn’t fantastic

Lush is a household name in handmade cosmetics that has demonstrated that being a good business can actually be good business. Lush has a 100% vegetarian philosophy, ethical buying policies, a firm stance against animal testing and ‘Naked’ zero-plastic packaging. Globally in 2018, Lush customers saved 6.6 million bottles of plastic bath products by choosing Naked. It also has a take-back scheme called the 5 Pot Programme, which encourages customers to reuse the black pots that Lush products come in. The company follows a “no advertising policy” - with no TV campaigns or celebrity endorsements and instead relies on the advocacy generated by its customers.

Big questions CMOs and NEDs should be asking in 2020

Below, Wolff Olins and Chapter Zero have formulated some practical questions that NEDs and CMOs can ask today - to motivate themselves and their organisations to start making a difference, fast.

5 questions every NED should ask today

  1. How engaged are our employees with our sustainability agenda today?

  2. How much time do we dedicate to sustainability in our discussions with our customers today?

  3. Are we actively conducting research into our consumers’ attitudes to climate change?

  4. How deeply is climate change built into our brand proposition and personality (beyond just being a ‘value’)?

  5. What feedback do we have on our sustainability initiatives from consumers, customers and employees?

5 questions every CMO should ask today

  1. What negative consumer behaviours are we currently encouraging - and could we address?

  2. Do we have existing brands in our portfolio (that are underleveraged) that can drive positive behaviours - or do we need to invest in new ones?

  3. What insight do we have into how well or badly our wider category is perceived to be doing in terms of its impact on climate change?

  4. What clubs or leagues could we join that are relevant to our industry and that we could really learn some lessons from? (And what clubs are our competitors already part of?)

  5. What marketing experiments could we conduct - at low cost and low risk - that might positively influence consumer behaviours?