Sustainability needs a rebrand

Ash Stapleton

No one can deny that sustainability is imperative, but the way it’s positioned is broken. The concept needs a rebrand if we are going to create genuine, lasting and impactful action.

A report by J. Walter Thompson (now Wunderman Thompson) found that 92 percent of consumers are trying to live more sustainably, yet unfortunately that’s still not enough.

More than half of consumers believe they could be doing more, but our consumption is increasing. If food waste were a country it would be the third-largest contributor to CO2 emissions; we’re consuming 400 percent more fashion items than decades ago and our plastic pollution will double by 2030. We need to change our behavior en masse and fast.

While government intervention and policy will be absolutely crucial to this worldwide issue, it’s important to consider the consumer demand for sustainable practices. It’s time to think about how we position sustainability to connect with the general population and incite change.

A case of extremes

The issues surrounding sustainability are mammoth, so naturally, brands respond in extreme ways. Take the Zero Waste movement, the War on Waste, Extinction Rebellion, the Minimalists. These initiatives are useful in that they can inform, educate and inspire action, yet they’re positioned using the language of negativity.

This approach has been proven to repel our attention rather than captivate it. Humans are hardwired to avoid hard work and bad feelings. Think the psychological term “avoidance behavior.” It’s why we procrastinate, seek short-term pleasure over long-term gain, and why images of emphysema on cigarette packets have proven ineffective.

Make no mistake, education is vital and knowledge is power, but the way it’s presented is key. If brands focus too heavily on the negative, use scare tactics or guilt people into action, they’re at risk of inadvertently promoting inaction.

Broaden the appeal

If you look at the majority of sustainable products, you’ll see a sea of sameness. There’s an aesthetic that “feels”  eco: brown paper, jars and recycled cardboard. Brand names include words like eco, bio or enviro. The result? Close to 60 percent of consumers believe sustainable products feel less “luxury” and more “hippy,” and 77 percent believe they shouldn’t have to pay more for them.

Simply put, sustainable products aren’t desirable enough. To stand out, brands need to broaden their appeal beyond a certain type of audience. Observe the benchmarks: Tesla, Everlane, Karst notebooks all create highly desirable, relevant products for their audiences and refuse to mimic category norms and conventions.

Walk the talk

Many Australian businesses now recognize the benefits of being perceived as sustainable. Four out of five have it on their agenda, and rightly so. Beyond the clear environmental impacts, sustainability has the potential to improve the bottom line—with 80 percent of consumers buying more sustainable brands, given a choice. Yet when planet and profit collide, unsustainable sustainability practices follow.

This isn’t new: it’s called greenwashing or sustainability propaganda, where serious commitments to sustainable practices versus superficial tweaks are designed to be hard to distinguish between. But consumers today are becoming more informed and smell a rat a mile away. In fact, only 52 percent of them trust brands, and once that trust is lost, it can be incredibly hard to claw back.

If you want to change consumer behavior or be genuinely sustainable, look at the full picture. From your business model to your strategy, product development and supply chain, right through to branding and marketing. Don’t oversell: tell an authentic message and take your customers on the journey.

Begin the rebrand

In no way is repositioning sustainability in your business and product line easy, yet every positive move has the potential to make an impact.

Here are four tips to get the conversation started.

  1. Keep it positive
    Scare tactics and guilt trips send audiences running. Find opportunities to engage in a conversation. Educate and personalize your message based on their level of knowledge or appetite for change, not yours. Consumers are more willing to transform behaviors if they feel it’s their choice.
  2. Truly know your audience
    Resist the temptation to follow category conventions of what good or appealing looks like. Be creative in your approach, get your inspiration from categories outside sustainability, and engage your audiences in ways that are relevant to them.
  3. Have authenticity baked in
    If your organization’s core purpose isn’t about saving the world, that’s okay—just don’t pretend it is. Be transparent in your approach, communicate small changes, and whatever you do, no greenwashing propaganda. Make your communications simple, clear and authentic.
  4. Be brave
    You won’t please everyone, and that’s okay; it often means you’re onto something. You can’t be all things to everyone, but you can make an impact with your tribe. Be clear on who your message is targeting and what you need to convey. After all, if every organization focused on positive change within their niche, then the sum of the parts might just shift that dial.

Sustainability is not a simple task to overcome, but the pressure is on to make an impact. Every little bit of progress, positive or negative, counts. Organizations need to authentically make sustainable products and services more desirable and relevant, and truly connect with their audiences. Then we can start to reposition sustainability and, more importantly, shift consumer behavior for the better.

This article was first published on

Ash Stapleton is a Landor senior strategist based in Sydney, Australia.