How to brand sustainability

Now Longer Lasting

Our society is moving in two opposing directions at the same time. On one hand, we are actively destroying our environment in so many ways – factory farming, mountaintop mining, overfishing, deforestation, resource depletion, to name a few – that it often seems like our intention is to hasten our own extinction.

At the same time, there are large and growing numbers of people, organizations, businesses, institutions, and even a few governments that are all working hard to move everyone toward a different, more sustainable path. Since you’re reading this post, you may consider yourself a member of this group.

Trying to move society onto this more sustainable path is a Herculean task. We have to convince ourselves and others to rethink how we live, the kind of foods we eat, places we live, ways we get around, the whole way we relate to the environment around us. The good news is that all the tools needed to persuade people to rethink their values exist right now and are well known to quite a few people. The bad news is that most of the people who have mastered these tools use them to urge people to buy more stuff, including some stuff that harms them and their environment. Collectively, these tools are commonly known as branding.

Using branding to change people’s habits and perceptions is a two-step process. Step 1 is showing them what the problem with things as they are, and Step 2 is to show them how your brand will solve that problem. Are you a young man who feels invisible to beautiful women? If you just switch to the right beer, you’ll be able to attract them. Are you uncomfortable with your body type/fashion sense/social standing? There are legions of advertised products available to help you. Once you start looking at TV commercials critically, you’ll notice most of them contain this problem/solution in some way.

Branding seems like the perfect set of tools for convincing people to move toward a more sustainable world. After all, we’re facing serious problems that could greatly affect life as we know it, and the solutions are pretty apparent – simply switch to a greener version of whatever products you’re using now, or perhaps consider using a completely different product (like a bicycle or a bus instead of a car), or no product at all (walk or don’t make the trip).

The obvious problem is that convincing people to overconsume is more lucrative that convincing people to be sensitive of the impacts their purchases make on the environment or society. The good news is that the internet and social networking have started to level the playing field a bit. Now, for little or no money beyond the cost of a camera and a computer (which most people already have), almost any clever and resourceful person can make a YouTube video that could potentially go viral and reach the hearts of as many people as a million dollar TV commercial.

Most of us are aware on some level that the we’re being sold an unsustainable path, but we either don’t know what to do about it, or we don’t feel compelled or empowered to take the right steps. And the forces of overconsumption keep enticing us to stick to our bad habits.

Moving society onto the path toward a new green world takes a lot more than good marketing and communications skills. It also will require research, knowledge, improved technologies and systems, political will and strong leadership. But all of these other things will happen a lot faster when people begin asking for them. And in order to compel them to ask, we need to build the brand – the brand of sustainability.

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2 Comments on “How to brand sustainability”

  1. John,

    First I’d like to say how much I’m enjoying reading your posts on
    “Design for a New Green World”. I believe you have a clear
    understanding of the dilemma that surrounds the promotion
    of consumer consumption and the creation of a more sustainable
    and just economic system. The current extract-convert-market-
    sell-use-dispose model has put many of the world’s people and their
    environments in crisis. And it’s not for the lack of knowledge about
    how an overly consumptive lifestyle can have a negative effect on our viability as a species that prevents us from moving fast enough toward a more
    sustainable life experience. The human fire that can never be quenched
    is desire. As long as we haven’t the self-discipline to control our
    desire there will be a lawn mower or two in every garage. Does it matter
    if it’s electric or gas powered if we can’t learn to share a mower with our
    community? I agree with you that “Moving society onto a path toward a
    new green world takes a lot more than good marketing and communications
    skills”. And I agree with you that research, knowledge, improved technologies
    and systems, political will and strong leadership will help lead us there. But
    as human “beings” not human “havers” we’ll need to become aware of how
    connected and interdependent we already are with our human, animal and plant neighbors all around this beautiful blue planet. Sustainability requires more than anything a change of heart. So let’s do whatever we can to build the brand of sustainability, with love in our hearts. I look forward to your next post.

    • johnbeske Says:

      Thanks for the comment and the kind words, Dan. It seems like you’re ahead of the curve in realizing that moving society toward a more sustainable culture isn’t something we’re just doing for fun. There is some very compelling evidence that we’re simply not going to be able to continue with commerce at is has been going for that much longer before we start running out of stuff (and causing lots of other problems). It is going to take a lot of very talented and hardworking people to develop the tools and systems necessary to build a healthier economy and culture, and I believe everyone has a role to play. The place where those of us in the communications world can help is to sound the alarms about the bad things and spread the word about the good alternatives.

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