People Want Transparency on Climate Progress: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

That means brands must be honest about failures and rethink consumption

No brand wants to tell the world that it’s falling behind on its sustainability progress, that its program didn’t work out as intended, that its new refillable option never took off, or that the carbon offsets it paid for were actually a scam.

But that’s exactly the kind of information that people want companies to be honest about.

A new Adweek-Morning Consult survey shows roughly three-quarters of Americans think it’s important for brands to regularly update the public on their progress toward sustainability goals, regardless of whether the news is good or bad.

Practitioners and experts agree that transparency is the gold standard when it comes to bringing sustainability messaging into marketing. But choosing when and how to communicate those messages is no simple task. Plus, it varies greatly by industry.

“As marketers or brands we need to be to be really thoughtful about how we message and what we message,” said Mark Kirkham, svp and chief marketing officer of PepsiCo’s international beverages business. “The important part, at this juncture, is the authenticity of what we do. Being focused on walking the talk before going out and shouting.”

Do: Own up to your failures

Sometimes, though, real authenticity means owning up to your failures. Intrepid Travel is one brand setting an example in this regard, according to Alison Pepper, evp of government relations and sustainability at the 4A’s.

The tourism company, which offers guided trips around the world in a way that aims to reduce climate impact and support local economies sustainably, recently removed two wildlife experiences from its itineraries. During its ongoing evaluation process, Intrepid determined that the experiences no longer complied with its animal welfare policy.

“Being a sustainable tour operator requires more than simply creating and innovating travel experiences with new, ethical adventures,” said Matt Berna, president and managing director of North America, Intrepid Travel. “It’s imperative for businesses in the tourism sector to continue to monitor their existing offerings and hold themselves and their suppliers accountable, making changes when necessary, to ensure the protection of all living species, while continuing to educate consumers and the wider industry so that more responsible decisions are made.”

Intrepid, which has a climate scientist on staff, makes all its tourism guides and tool kits available to industry peers in an attempt to promote wider progress on sustainability in travel. That’s earned the brand consistent positive feedback on social, where people have praised the company for “walking the walk.”

“They are taking an active, proactive, ongoing effort to say that these trips don’t meet our standards, and we’re going to do it proactively,” Pepper said.

Don’t: Build campaigns around minor initiatives

Most people (66%) agree that the onus is on the advertiser to know what constitutes greenwashing and stop producing misleading campaigns, the Adweek-Morning Consult data showed.

Half (50%) of respondents aren’t confident that they’d be able to identify greenwashing on their own, according to the survey, while only 31% said they were at least somewhat confident they’d be able to. But that’s changing: Younger generations (age 18-42) are twice as confident in their ability to spot greenwashing than older generations (age 59-77).

Given that increase in sustainability and climate literacy, it’s crucial that marketers bring the right expertise to the table when shaping campaign messaging to avoid common greenwashing pitfalls.

One common mistake is when brands build a campaign around a minor initiative in a way that eclipses the overall impact. While it’s often all based on real work, the campaign is not representative of the entire business. That disconnect sows distrust among people, especially younger ones.

Sustainability needs to be “at the core, as opposed to something that is layered on to make it look like we really care,” Nannette Dufour, chief sustainability officer at McCann, said. “Because consumers are smart.”

Do: Decouple growth from resource consumption

Ultimately, the only way to achieve long-term results on climate goals is to rethink how we do business. Growth for growth’s sake leads to more resource consumption and, ultimately, more greenhouse gas emissions. That system has to be restructured.

“It’s perfectly possible to decouple growth from resource consumption if you do things differently,” said Anna Lungley, chief sustainability officer at Dentsu. “It doesn’t need to be about compromising performance or driving down growth, as long as you’re ultimately consuming less resources. And there are different ways to do that.”

Lungley pointed to Ikea’s plant-based meatballs as an example of this kind of shift. By swapping real meat for plant-based, the climate footprint of the balls is reduced by 96%.

“They sell like hotcakes, just as fast as the meatballs, and so they’re able to pair that growth was massively reducing water and carbon consumption,” Lungley said.

This story is part of Adweek’s New Consumer digital package, which focuses on diversity in all the ways it manifests for consumers—including gender, race, age and ability—and how marketers need to reach people where they are and meet their unique needs.