Climate Activism Requires More Than Just Sustainability Statements From Brands

The calls must be real and action-oriented

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This summer I kayaked an Alaskan lake where, just a few years ago, a glacier covered the landscape. Alaska, now the fastest warming state in the country, shows the dramatic ravages of a warming planet. The experience, both breathtaking and heartbreaking, became my climate story.

Everyone has a climate story, whether they know it or not. There are incremental personal moments—hotter temperatures in your city, more yellow jackets or ticks in the yard, the cost of avocados—and then the larger tragic narratives we’re beginning to know so well. California wildfires erased a town last year, a reminder that climate outcomes are without mercy. Hurricane Dorian and the reality of 70,000 Bahamian climate refugees is the ultimate climate story, extreme weather as vicious as we’ve ever seen it.

Because I’m writing a book about climate action and what our creative profession can do, I’m thinking about this 21st-century predicament as I look through agency and brand sites, scouring their mission statements and work for signs this climate emergency is on their radar. I’m not finding much. What I often find instead is a statement that includes company efforts that speak to sustainability.

And that troubles me.

It’s not that a dedication to sustainability is wrong. In fact, it’s ever so right.

[Sustainability] does not address climate stories we experience and connect those stories to action. Sustainability keeps the climate emergency at arm’s length.

Sustainability—defined as the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance—has been a driver of mostly good things for 30-plus years. It’s been the subject of research by environmentalists, bioethicists, chemists, management leaders, architects, urban planners and sincere defenders of the planet. Many brands have embraced sustainable thinking and practice, finding ways to rethink packaging, distribution and mission.

But here’s my worry: Sometimes sustainability as a construct, an ethical stance or a mission statement gives cover for not being courageous about the climate crisis. It does not address climate stories we experience and connect those stories to action. Sustainability keeps the climate emergency at arm’s length.

Sustainability has been corporatized, institutionalized and packaged in annual reports. Oftentimes, the advertising and public relations industries equate anything with environmental overtones as evidence of sustainability thinking. Corporations craft glowing statements about dedication to sustainable practices while rarely facing the responsibility that entails.

For the love of everything green, ExxonMobil has a sustainability statement, even while it continues to be a leader in fossil fuel drilling, a primary driver of global warming.

Kevin Tuerff, CEO of Brokering Goodness, a consultancy about brands and people doing good in the world, is a longtime environmental activist. In the late 1990s, he co-founded Austin’s Enviromedia, one of the first agencies to take on sustainability as a business mission. But he believes a new vocabulary is needed.

“At this point, the concept of sustainability isn’t enough. It fails to inspire action and change to reduce pollution, and that’s precisely what we need by every person on the planet,” he says.

In fact, sustainability, with its one-size-fits-all platform in public and corporate spheres, often does little to get us thinking about climate responsibility and personal investment. It’s comfortable and safe, a buzzword thrown around because most audiences have a passing understanding that it’s “good for the earth” (whatever that means). There’s little grit or courage attached to most references to sustainability. The statements often lack specificity about climate action.

There are exceptions.

Patagonia shows how sustainable thinking can be leveraged to incite real change, constructing its worthy and responsible company mission around the idea of managing resources. But while it states a sustainability mission of “being in business to save the home planet,” it then outlines a data-driven statement on its mission to address the climate crisis in specific ways. Sustainability starts the conversation, and Patagonia takes it much further, speaking directly to climate crisis indicators and actions.

I asked Jonathan Wise, co-founder of The Comms Lab in London, about his take on my sustainability frustration. Wise has had a few frustrations of his own. About 10 years ago, he left a thriving career as a London-based planner to get a master’s degree in sustainability and responsibility from the Ashridge Business School.

“The idea of ‘sustainability’ can be difficult to comprehend,” Wise wrote to me. “To make it more personal, we would ask a question: ‘Is the work I am doing contributing to a healthy and sustainable planet for the people I love?’ Many people in advertising feel a tension between the short-term needs of getting paid and the long-term negative consequences of some of the work they do. A key leadership opportunity is the decision to deploy our talents and focus on creating a healthy and sustainable planet for all.”

Agencies in London—The Comms Lab included—are making best use of this leadership opportunity by signing up for what they’ve named Create&Strike, a collective of advertising people and agencies ready to put their creative talents behind the climate strike movement.

They’ve used their dedication to sustainability as a catalyst for courageous action and activism.

It’s time brands, agencies and people do just that: find a way to make sustainability real and action oriented. Honest language on being climate responsible will take us past the good work of “sustainability” and status quo and toward the activism that people and agencies must bring to the climate crisis.