Speaking Sustainably

Earth is on track for climate catastrophe — what if brands are our lifeline?

Time is running out to turn the tide on climate change.

A grim statement, indeed, but a factual one according to the dire new report released by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report paints a stark picture: As early as 2030, rising temperatures could lead to irreversible effects in our environment and societal stability. Some of these effects are already in motion: rising sea levels, dangerous heat waves and more intense storms are increasingly the new normal.

Rapid, unprecedented transformation of our current way of life is necessary to stave off catastrophe, these scientists advise. How unprecedented? We're talking net-zero global emissions by 2050.

That's a pretty daunting mandate, particularly considering that 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And because of anticipated increased demands for plastics, particularly in the developing world, petrochemical companies are expected to increase their emissions by 20 percent by 2030. At first blush, Earth’s collision course with catastrophe seems an absolute certainty.

Not so fast. What if consumers — and corporations — hold the potential to be Earth's lifeline?

A growing body of research finds that consumers increasingly want companies and brands to address social and environmental causes. Eight out of 10 consumers nationwide believe companies should take a stand on social and environmental issues, according to data collected by Shelton Group. Further, consumers want brands to stand up for issues in their arena of influence: Nearly two-thirds believe companies should take action on issues that align with the products or services they offer. And importantly, Shelton Group found that the vast majority who felt this way stand ready to reward brands and companies who take action with their pocketbooks and customer loyalty. 

This call to action is growing ever louder among the public. Ubiquitous social media allows consumers to directly connect with companies and hold them accountable for their actions and promises.

In other words, brands that make commitments and take action on climate change are not only helping the planet, they're making a smart business investment. That’s language companies understand. 

To have any chance of averting climate disaster, corporations must be on board to make a dent in global emissions. One of the surest ways to get their attention is to appeal to their bottom line.

Slowly but surely, companies are taking this to heart:

  • DisneyWorld aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 57,000 tons per year with its 50-megawatt solar facility set to open by the end of 2018.
  • Several companies have committed to reducing plastic waste, such as Starbucks, which announced plans to phase out single-use plastic straws by 2020, eliminating more than 1 billion plastic straws per year from stores.
  • In September at the Global Climate Action Summit, 21 business leaders announced a new alliance, the Step Up Declaration, that aims to harness the power of emerging technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure a climate turning point by 2020.
  • The 50x50 Commission has been brought together by the Alliance to Save Energy. Its members include heavyweights across many industries (Audi, General Motors, Microsoft and National Grid among others). The group's goal is to slash U.S. transportation energy consumption 50 percent by 2050.
  • The launch of the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance in July by industry heavyweights Danone, Nestle, Mars and Unilever is another example of companies coming together to advance policy that is a win-win for businesses, consumers and the planet.

Climate change is the fight of our lives, and there's no quick or painless solution. But the stars are aligning to give corporations the incentive they need to transform business practices that harm the Earth and win customer loyalty in the process. In this consumer-driven economy, brands could provide us — and themselves — with a lifeline just in the nick of time.

One last, and perhaps obvious point: As companies do their part to preserve the planet, it's vital that they shout it from the rooftops.

Americans are woefully bad at remembering what companies are doing which things to protect and improve life on Earth, Shelton Group's research found. That's likely because many corporate goals sound the same — X percent reduction by Y year. When companies commit to slashing GHG emissions drastically by 2030 and tell the story of why, that involves consumers in the quest and give them ways to help in it. And that should start right now.

Although every company must get to zero emissions as quickly as absolutely possible and tell that story of why, the reality is that's still in the future; most of us pay attention more readily to what's happening right now versus what might happen in the future. As we face down ever-increasing apocalyptic and tragic weather events, brands should tell the story of what they're doing in the face of that to help people right now. And personalize it. As humans, we react to individual, human stories much more viscerally and emotionally than we do to broad statistics or stories of "hundreds."

The fate against climate catastrophe requires all hands on deck. We need companies to take bold stands to eliminate their impact on the planet. If they tell us their story of what they’re doing, why and who they’re helping now — and in the future — individuals will be pulled into the effort. That’s the win-win-win.