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Is it time to rethink how sustainability is visually marketed?

Polar bear

An iStock image of a polar bear. This imagery may not be the best way to communicate the climate crisis anymore. Image courtesy of iStock.

Are pictures of distressed polar bears, raging wildfires or wind turbines the most impactful way for businesses to convey the importance of environmental sustainability? It is a question that has long challenged green marketers and campaigners, and photography provider iStock reckons it may have identified some answers.

In the two years since the pandemic struck, the company has been carefully tracking consumer attitudes towards the sustainability-themed images it licenses through its Visual GPS platform, which combines insights from a trove of search and download data with extensive image testing and surveys in more than two dozen countries.

Jacqueline Bourke, head of creative insights at iStock, tells BusinessGreen the exercise has indicated that images that showcase people taking small actions to tackle their emissions footprint have the most potential to drive positive outcomes for the planet. "Through the Visual GPS research that we've done on a consistent basis every four months over two years, we have really begun to see that what the British consumer in particular is looking towards brands to educate them on the simple, practical actions that they can take in their everyday life that will lead to a better impact on the planet," she explained.

As concern about the climate crisis has grown and green marketing has become an imperative for firms, searches and downloads of sustainability-themed visual materials made by the small to medium sized business customers and individuals that dominate iStock's customer base have been growing, Bourke said.

These trends were turbocharged by the COVID pandemic, she added. "The visual appetite for sustainability is increasing," she said. "We've very much seen that happen hand-in-hand with the impact of the COVID pandemic. In March 2020 ... there was a moment where brands began to focus on sustainability messaging. We saw visual searches for things like 'shopping local' go up, and searches for 'sustainable lifestyle' go up, as well as 'sustainable business'. So that was s very interesting moment."

However, she stresses a clear "visual evolution" is underway when it comes to the types of sustainability images proving popular on the platform. For many years, sustainability and climate content was largely characterized by images that highlight either the causes or the devastating impacts of environmental breakdown: polluting industrial plants; polar bears; melting ice caps; or birds ensnared by plastic. But the growth of clean energy and electric mobility technologies in recent years has driven a marked shift in demand on iStock for visuals that showcase the clean energy technologies that can help tackle the climate crisis, such as wind turbines or electric vehicles, Bourke said.

More recently, the pandemic prompted a surge in searches and downloads for nature-based images, Bourke explains. The images of dolphins returning to Venice canals and sleeping elephants in China that made the rounds on social media in the first lockdown may have been quickly debunked as fake news, but they spoke to the growing appeal that positive visions of a greener future had on a public endowed with a newfound appreciation for green spaces and clean air.

However, Bourke stresses that iStock research has highlighted that brands and media outlets looking to illustrate sustainability should go further than showcasing clean technologies or the natural world and instead opt for imagery that demonstrates individuals adopting lower-carbon behaviors or technologies. "Renewable energy is such a popular visual downloaded by our customers, so we tested content around wind turbines and solar panels," she said. "What we found was that those types of visuals really do connect, but it was people-centered stories that connected best."

Although well-known sustainable imagery still proves popular, it's a good idea to also include visuals that aren't as obviously tied to the sustainability movement.

Images of people recycling, using reusable coffee cups or cycling to work are all examples of the "people-centered images" iStock's research has suggested hold most sway with the public. "People-centered stories really pull people into the messaging, but that is something that is very different to [the images] we often see being downloaded for our customers on iStock," Bourke elaborated. "People-centered stories really show the subtle nuances of what people can do in their everyday lives."

Guided by the findings of the Visual GPS platform, iStock has published guidelines for how businesses can maximize their impact when communicating sustainability messages in a visual manner. The company has recommended that companies that want to illustrate the importance of sustainability initiatives or climate action opt for visuals that highlight practical, everyday climate action over those of inanimate climate solutions or ravaged landscapes.

iStock has also encouraged brands to use "aspirational and future-facing imagery" that portray a cleaner, greener, and richer future. "It comes down to looking at the visuals that you're selecting and [looking at whether] there are elements in it that are sustainable," Bourke said. "Are you looking at, for instance, reusable coffee cups, reusable shopping bags? What level of plastic is within the visual story?"

iStock's research also highlights that brands should be careful to cater their visual messaging to their desired audience, noting that extensive image testing revealed that sustainability visuals land differently with different age groups. Baby boomers were found to most likely to respond to images that showcased individual actions, such as composting, recycling or retrofitting their homes, whereas millennials were more responsive to images highlighting sustainable consumption habits and sustainable business practices. Younger consumers — those in the "Gen Z" bracket — were found to be enticed by visuals which showed people working collectively to tackle climate change, whereas people born between 1965 and 1980, or "Gen X," were found to be the most engaged by visuals that spoke to sustainable investment. They were also the generation most skeptical about the private sector's ability to tackle climate change.

Faced with the challenge of appealing to a broad spectrum of audiences, businesses and media outlets should try to ensure their images are as accessible and financially inclusive as possible, Bourke stressed. A shot of an inanimate electric charge point installed next to an expensive-looking driveway, for instance, risks alienating many viewers for whom such purchases are out of reach, she said. "That doesn't tell a story of financial inclusion, it doesn't tell a story of accessibility to taking that action," she said. "It's not all of us that can afford an electric charging station in our own driveways."

She elaborated: "When it comes to the building out their visual strategies, we're really encouraging our customers to consider [whether they] are empowering, by showing inclusive sustainable messaging? Are you making the actions personable?"

In addition, the iStock guidance warns that visuals that have traditionally been used to depict sustainability may push some audiences. "Although well-known sustainable imagery still proves popular, it's a good idea to also include visuals that aren't as obviously tied to the sustainability movement, but still signify it for your more discerning customers," the guidance noted.

There are a number of other ways iStock is working to ensure its activities drive the best outcomes for the environment and climate, Bourke adds, including a drive to reduce the emissions footprint of the photo shoots it commissions, for starters. "We look at the ways in which we create our content," she said. "How sustainable is it, where are our contributors coming from? How do we assign the custom shoots requests that come in from our customers? We really work to ensure that they're assigned locally." The company is also working to ensure that its suppliers and tech vendors have high sustainability credentials, she said.

iStock has also partnered with Climate Visuals, a project from the Climate Outreach think tank, which is aiming to build a more diverse visual language for communicators of all types to better illustrate climate change. The organization has worked with iStock to create guidelines for its contributors shooting sustainability stories "to really ensure they are on point," Bourke said.

Bourke stresses that this work is important, because iStock acknowledges it has a key role to play in helping ensure mainstream visualizations of sustainability are modern, authentic and actively encourages the pursuit of greener lifestyles. "We have a responsibility to ensure that we're really inspiring the right type of content on the website that speaks most authentically to today's consumers — content that will inspire and empower them to action," she said.

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