Climate change isn’t a new problem. But it is one that, up until recently, has been only delicately approached in the media. Talks of reducing meat consumption, cutting single-use plastic and travelling on public transport were for a long time seen as grounds for applause; born from a narrative where going greener was viewed as “doing good” rather than “doing what is necessary”. But since the last years’ warning that we have just 12 years to limit a climate change crisis, Sir David Attenborough’s claim that we have never been more out of touch with the natural world, and most recently, Extinction Rebellion’s London protests, it has become clear that the narrative is rapidly changing.
One of the key catalysts for this shift has been an unexpected force, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Since rising to fame last year following a self-imposed school strike, Thunberg has turned the heads of global political and business leaders, addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, the UN climate talks in Poland and even the House of Commons. Applauded for the clarity and urgency of her speeches, Thunberg has been one of few to create a global stage for a crisis that scientists have been trying to articulate since the IPPC issued its first report in 1990. And global brands are starting to follow suit.
The problem is that in spite of growing awareness, climate change is still a deeply political and polarising issue, one compounded by the fact that over half of the UK population still believes that human activity contributes only in small part to global warming. Whilst many brands have dipped their toe into the realm of calling for environmental action, those choosing to genuinely grow their green creds are being confronted with the fact that there is still a mass resistance to change. At this very moment, McDonald’s is being called on to stop its roll out of paper straws amongst claims they “dissolve too quickly”, and sales in plastic bottled water are rising at a rate of 7%. Even for those that have thrown their hat in the ring, many have had their authenticity thrown into question; not least Iceland’s celebrated “Rang-tan” campaign, which pledged to ban palm oil from its own-brand foods, only to later be found selling them online.
But despite teething problems, advertising still has the potential to play a huge role in leading the charge on climate change if supported by genuine corporate initiatives, and there is a lot to be learnt from Greta Thunberg’s approach. Building conversations around environment that create enough impact to drive a call to action is one of the main challenges the industry faces, but Thunberg has achieved this with relative ease; through a combination of unapologetic honesty, authenticity and willingness to place blame. Where Iceland’s failure to stick to its pledge caused many to question whether it was simply jumping on a cultural bandwagon, the sincerity of Thunberg’s “I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is” creates a sense of mass complicity and urgency that demands change.
Whilst asking brands to start pointing fingers is unrealistic, accepting, or at least addressing our complicity in climate change can be a powerful marketing tool. Back in 2017, Unilever’s “Unstereotype Alliance”, which set to banish stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising helped do exactly that; openly acknowledging advertising’s culpability and demanding change to such an extent that it has since helped form part of the movement causing harmful stereotypes to be banned from June. If one campaign can have such a widespread impact on the way gender is portrayed, why can’t the same be done for our treatment of the environment?
There’s no doubt that the climate around us is changing. For many, we are living in a ticking time-bomb, one that we must learn quickly to dismantle. We are told we must embrace “cathedral thinking” – laying the foundations for a carbon free future without knowing how we are going to paint the roof in order to keep pace. But wide-scale behaviour change is needed for this to be made possible, change that can only be achieved through building the awareness that time is against us. No easy task, but if a 16-year-old can make our country sit up and listen, why can’t we?