Sustainability has an image problem. Here’s how we can start thinking about the big picture and get people motivated for change.
You’ve seen it all before. Off the top of your head, you can imagine images of wooden cutlery, canvas tote bags, and paper beverage straws. Neat lines of mason jars, brimming optimistically with lentils, rice, and other pantry goods are lined up in a way that seems just a little too perfect.
The list goes on. You know the images of people happily recycling. You’ve seen endless rows of trees. Further to that point, the color green ad nauseam. And so. Many. Cupped hands holding saplings—your guess is as good as mine as to why.
These are just a few of many recurring visual depictions of sustainability plastered everywhere on the internet. These are especially popular around Earth Day. While none of these things are inherently bad, wrong, or unsustainable, their overuse in content has reduced sustainability to something tragically one-note.
These images are more than a shortcut in the conversation around climate change, contributing to corporate greenwashing at their very worst. They’re also a missed opportunity to engage people in realistic, personal, and exciting ways. If we think like marketers, sustainability is long overdue for a rebrand in order to boost engagement. Doing it successfully will require us to think outside of the boxes we’ve put it in.
Strike a Balance Between the Sustainable and Unsustainable
The fact we’ve defaulted to such a bland, idyllic portrayal of sustainability makes sense. Humans have a tendency—an Achilles’ heel—to think of themselves as something apart from nature. It’s as if we somehow exist outside of (or, depending on who you ask, above) it all.
However, no matter how removed from nature we may appear, we are part of an ecosystem. Every action we take has an impact on that ecosystem, and ultimately, ourselves. As such, sustainability can’t only be tidy and aspirational. It is happening here and now, right in front of us, wherever we are. Confining it to far-off forests, pristine plastic-free pantries, and an apparent obsession with tending to young plant life creates a disconnect with reality. This is just one version of sustainability—and one the majority of people probably don’t identify with. I know I don’t, anyway.
Just as sustainability is suffering from a portrayal that alienates people, so is unsustainability. The way environmental damage tends to be communicated by well-meaning advocates is generally calamitous. Think vast landfills, burning forests, plastic-littered beaches.
While I will be the first to say that it’s crucial we come to terms with the consequences of our actions, and that stark visuals can be a powerful means of doing just that. I also believe there is a time and a place and that too much of a negative message can cause people to disengage. Two things can be true at once.
Approach Everyday Life with Empathy
It’s being a human 101. Life is hard. Work is tiring. The last thing people want to see when they open their phones after a grueling day of back-to-back meetings or chasing around their kids (or both) is a picture of environmental devastation with a moral appeal to action. Simply put, it’s a bummer.
People will probably scroll right past these types of images, in search of something a bit more palatable, like a cat video. For those who don’t scroll past them, they can be a troubling source of eco-anxiety. This is especially true when the scale of the problem appears too large for an individual to do anything meaningful about it. The message behind these images is, “we/you/some company has messed up—and bad.” Nobody likes to feel called out, or worse, judged.
Show Off Earth’s Beauty Via Diverse Imagery
So, we have two polar opposite ends of a communications spectrum before us: manicured and a tad out-of-touch, and heavy. These opposites can be reconciled into a middle ground that captures attention and inspires action. It all can be done through non-clichéd and inviting imagery.
Above all, sustainable imagery must be tailored to specific audiences. A bakery wouldn’t search for “food” when selecting images. This would include everything, from beans to bananas. Likewise, we need to tease apart the notion of “sustainability” as a generalized concept. Sustainability isn’t any one thing. Rather, everything we do and every choice we make has an opportunity to be more sustainable.
By taking that approach and running with it, the opportunities for how to portray sustainability are infinite. Sustainability has the potential to touch every aspect of our lives—from the buildings we occupy and the food we eat, to the clothes we wear and the ways we travel.
Enough already with the tired codes of sustainability. The color green does not have a monopoly on nature. The world we are trying to protect is bursting with color. Our world contains pastel pink sunsets, deep blue oceans, and terracotta desert canyons. While spring is beautiful with its diffused sunshine and blooming flowers, the gentle decay of fall and iciness of winter demonstrate a respect for Earth in all its seasons.
Take Action As an Individual . . . Outside of the Office
Just as sustainability isn’t any one thing, there isn’t one right way to do it either. The most important thing is to do something.
You don’t have to attend a climate protest to be a climate activist. Personally, crowded spaces give me intense anxiety. Instead, I write emails to companies and express my desire for change. (And if you’re a brand . . . address these requests from your customers!) I am vegan and take public transit. But I acknowledge that these are easier actions for me to take because I live in London, a city with great public transportation and plant-based startups abound.
It is important to remember that activism and advocacy are not one size fits all, for both individuals and brands. Movements of activism and advocacy also don’t end after you leave the office. Every person’s and brand’s sustainability journey are as unique as they are. This needs to be reflected in how we talk, visualize, and dream about the topic.
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License this cover image via over at Zamrznuti tonovi.