Environmental marketing: The possibilities and pitfalls of turning your brand green
Environmental issues are increasingly a matter of broad political, social, and cultural concern – and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s virtually impossible to avoid talking about climate change amidst heatwaves, forest fires, extreme flooding and disappearing wildlife – not to mention the mass protest movements designed to draw attention to these events.
In these circumstances, it’s increasingly ill-advised for businesses to ignore the environmental impact of the way they operate, from the sustainability of the materials they use in their products to the activities of the companies they choose to work with.
And this extends to their marketing strategies, too. Indeed, marketing is one of the key areas where businesses can embrace environmentalism to great effect. Environmental marketing campaigns can have a major impact on how a brand is perceived – but if done poorly, they can also backfire spectacularly.
In this post, we’ll discuss the importance of environmental marketing campaigns in the present climate (no pun intended). We’ll consider some of the pitfalls that can turn the most well-intentioned campaigns into PR disasters and look at examples of campaigns that reveal the true potential of this cutting-edge approach to marketing.
The growing consensus on climate change
In January 2021, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published a landmark survey on global attitudes to climate change. The Peoples’ Climate Vote is, as the report itself stresses, “the largest survey of public opinion on climate change ever conducted,” with 1.2 million respondents across 50 countries.
The results of the survey were stark: across all age groups, 64% of those polled considered climate change a global emergency. For under-18s, the percentage was 70%. In Western Europe and North America, the percentage was higher still, at 72%.
As the results of the UNDP survey indicate, the degree of importance accorded to climate change is at its highest among the young. And this is borne out by wider events that have captured the public eye and dominated mainstream coverage of the climate crisis in the past few years. From the Global Climate Strikes of 2019 to the ongoing protests by environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion, youth-led movements have put environmental issues firmly at the top of the agenda.
And major brands have not been slow to sit up and take notice. Over the past few years, a significant number of large companies have made public commitments to embrace environmental issues.
Pledges and publicity
In May 2019, Amazon co-founded The Climate Pledge, a commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. In June 2020, they announced a further $2billion Climate Pledge Fund to invest in companies contributing to “decarbonizing” the economy. As of September 2021, there are 115 signatories to The Climate Pledge, including Mercedes-Benz, Siemens, Microsoft, Unilever, IBM, and Visa.
One month after Amazon announced its substantial investment in efforts to mitigate climate change, Apple made a public commitment to become 100% carbon neutral “across its entire business, marketing supply chain and product life cycle” by 2030.
Google, meanwhile, made an even stronger commitment to use only carbon-free energy sources by 2030 (though the prospect “stresses out” CEO Sundar Pichai). And in September 2020, the world’s largest company by revenue, Walmart, announced a zero emissions target for 2040, alongside a commitment to “protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land and one million square miles of ocean by 2030.”
This urgency on the part of major companies to publicly declare their commitment to reducing emissions and promoting sustainability is understandable. There is now widespread awareness among business leaders that customers are increasingly factoring environmental issues into their purchasing decisions.
A landmark 2019 study by the non-profit Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) surveyed 600 leaders at president, vice-president, and CEO level in businesses with annual revenues greater than $500 million. The study found that more than 9 in 10 business leaders felt customers would hold them accountable for their environmental impact.
And this feeling has been borne out by research on consumer attitudes. A 2020 study by ING Research found that 61% of consumers would be less willing to buy a company’s products if they found out it was falling short on environmental issues.
It’s clear that, in the current global environment, companies that are able to commit to reducing their environmental impact and ensuring the sustainability of their products will be in an advantageous position when it comes to retaining customer trust and securing a positive brand image.
But how does this translate to marketing strategies?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as incorporating your environmentalist credentials into your marketing copy and carrying on as normal. Not only does this kind of approach fail to embrace the real potential of environmental marketing, but it can also backfire significantly.
In the following section, we’ll consider why it’s important to look beyond the tried-and-tested marketing strategies when it comes to embracing environmentalism as part of your brand. After that, we’ll give you some examples of what a radical and innovative approach to environmental marketing looks like.
The greenwashing backlash
If we’ve hopefully managed to convince you that environmental marketing has enormous potential, we should also be clear that it’s by no means a slam-dunk. As with any issue that has social and political ramifications, getting involved can be a double-edged sword – or even, in the worst cases, an unmitigated disaster.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that many traditional forms of marketing are very much not environmentally friendly. From branded stationery to leaflets and brochures, there are a great many long-standing staples of marketing that involve the production of huge quantities of non-eco-friendly materials – with a particular, and unfortunate, emphasis on paper and plastic.
Any attempt to promote your environmental commitments or sustainability initiatives that utilises these types of marketing strategies is an enormous risk. At worst, the very mode of delivery completely undermines your message: reams of paper produced solely to tell everyone how environmentally conscious your business is… It’s not a great look.
And there is good reason to be cautious in this regard. As environmental awareness grows among consumers, so too does their degree of suspicion when it comes to the claims of marketers. A case in point are the increasingly widespread accusations of corporate greenwashing.
This term, initially coined in the 1980s, refers to companies touting certain (often limited or ineffective) environmentally-friendly initiatives to disguise their generally poor record when it comes to green issues. A Guardian article from 2016 highlighted some of the most egregious cases – including a campaign by oil giant Chevron that trumpeted its involvement in a range of environmental projects, As it turned out, many of these projects were mandated by law, and in some cases Chevron’s investment was as low as $5,000 – far less than the cost of producing and running the adverts themselves.
Nowadays, ethically-conscious customers are increasingly able to see through dubious claims of environmentalism, aided by the publicity drawn by prominent climate activists. Last month, for instance, Greta Thunberg launched a broadside against the supposed environmental benefits of “ethical fast fashion” that was picked up by major news outlets.
What is more, government regulators are increasingly attentive to the risks of greenwashing, insofar as this may involve misleading or inaccurate claims on the part of marketers. A Financial Times report last month noted that regulators were looking to expose business claims of eco-friendliness to greater scrutiny.
For these reasons, environmental marketing needs to be conducted with care. As we’ll see from the examples below, a great environmental marketing campaign will leave little room for doubt about the company’s commitments to eco-friendliness.
What is more, rather than relying on traditional media of the paper-and-plastic variety, they will often utilise innovative new technological and experiential forms of presentation. These stretch from public, socially-orientated events to immersive virtual or augmented reality spectacles.
Finally, and most importantly, they go far beyond simply drawing attention to a company’s environmental projects. You’ll notice that the none of these successful campaigns simply say, “look, here’s what we’re doing.” Instead, they are intimately and inventively integrated into the company’s green projects.
Environmental marketing: The success stories
With these cautionary notes sounded, it’s time to turn to some particularly successful examples of environmental marketing. We’ll consider various recent campaigns in detail in order to assess what made them so effective, and to suggest how businesses can adapt their marketing strategies to this widespread shift in public awareness.
Patagonia (various campaigns, 2011-2019)
Our first case study is perhaps the most well-known – and extreme – example of a company putting its social and ethical commitments at the centre of its brand.
Patagonia has spent all its nearly fifty years of existence emphasising green issues. The result is that it is almost as well-known for its commitment to sustainability and environmental issues as it is for its clothing. In 2019, the brand received the UN Champions of the Earth award – the top environmental honour the organisation offers. And even its competitors recognise the power of this long-lasting identification with green issues: key competitor The North Face has rapidly shifted toward sustainable practices in the hopes of taking them on directly.
Given this, we should make a proviso here: Patagonia is not necessarily an example that businesses should consider emulating directly. The various campaigns we’ll consider here were successful precisely because of their incredible boldness and the risks the company was willing to take.
Nevertheless, Patagonia are an excellent source of inspiration for any businesses considering pursuing an environmental marketing campaign insofar as they reveal just how unique and innovative such campaigns can be. They show that environmental marketing is often at its best when it breaks many of the most long-cherished and carefully observed rules of the marketing world. They also show how a company willing to explore the potential of new media technologies can generate something truly attention-grabbing.
For this reason, rather than focusing on a single campaign, we’ll consider a few interconnected campaigns that Patagonia have run during the past decade, beginning with what is in some respects the foundational moment of environmental marketing in its contemporary form.
2011 Black Friday campaign
Environmental marketing certainly existed prior to Patagonia’s infamous 2011 Thanksgiving campaign. Indeed, the American Marketing Association was holding workshops on “Ecological Marketing” all the way back in 1975.
However, Patagonia were the first brand to take the implications of environmental marketing to its logical conclusion, producing what was in effect an anti-advert. In so doing, they set the tone for environmental marketing over the last decade.
The advert in question took up a full page in the Black Friday edition of The New York Times. At the centre of the advert was a more-or-less typical product image – a grey Patagonia jacket. And above the product image, in bold black type, was the slogan: “Don’t buy this jacket.”
Below the product image, meanwhile, six paragraphs of text outlined the significant environmental impact of Patagonia’s clothing. In the centre of the page, they highlighted their “Common Threads” initiative, encouraging customers to “reduce, repair, reuse, recycle, reimagine.”
Why did it work?
Now, this is obviously an extreme approach. It may seem counter-intuitive, to put it mildly, to conduct a campaign whose explicit intention is to discourage potential customers from making a purchase.
However, let’s look a little more closely at this apparent act of self-destruction.
Firstly, we have to acknowledge that, in terms of capturing the attention, this advert was enormously successful. The sheer improbability of a company asking you not to buy its products draws the eye, especially when presented in a format that is otherwise extremely familiar.
But what use is drawing attention when the consequence, at least in principle, will be a reduction in your sales?
Well, matters aren’t necessarily so simple. The second point to consider here is that, even if the advert did result in lost sales, it nevertheless allowed Patagonia to stress their environmentally conscious approach to clothing – and in a manner that clearly showed how committed they were to such an approach. From a narrowly quantitative view, one might well wonder if the brand awareness benefits of the advert would offset any loss of sales.
(In fact, as a report in the New Yorker in 2015 states, “the attention the ad received helped to bump Patagonia’s 2012 sales significantly.”)
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the actual copy of the advert subtly redirected the viewer’s attention to the benefits of Patagonia’s products. It suggested that customers could be environmentally conscious by buying longer-lasting and higher-quality clothing. And it was fairly clear whose clothing they had in mind – as the advert itself noted, “[Patagonia] make useful gear that lasts a long time.”
Thus, while at first blush this anti-advert was an act of consummate self-sabotage, on closer reflection it was actually an incredible piece of brand awareness-raising. It served to solidify Patagonia’s eco-friendly outlook while suggesting that buying durable clothing was a way for consumers to make greener choices.
And this meant, ultimately, buying Patagonia’s clothing.
2017 “This is Bears Ears” campaign
The 2011 Black Friday campaign, as innovative as it was, remained a fairly typical advert in form, if not in content.
In recent years, however, Patagonia has begun to increasingly embrace new media technologies to deliver their campaigns. One key example from 2017 will allow us to consider how effective such campaigns can be when allied with cutting-edge tech – and how little they may resemble advertisements in the conventional sense.
The campaign in question was produced in collaboration with Google, and it resulted in what they described as a “multimedia experience”.
This “experience” involved a series of 360-degree, VR-optimised, interactive films of the Bears Ears national monument in Utah, a sacred site to a number of Native American tribes. The monument had been in the news the year prior, when the Trump administration announced it would be reducing its size by 85% – and Patagonia announced, shortly afterward, they would be suing to prevent it.
The films, given the collective title of “This is Bears Ears” and made available online, were presented as a way for Americans – many of whom would never have the chance to visit the relatively remote area – to encounter for themselves its profound natural beauty. The hope was that this would increase support for maintaining its protected status and preventing access to the land for energy and drilling interests.
Why did it work?
There are three key points we can take away from this particular campaign.
Firstly, this was, to all intents and purposes, an actual environmental campaign, rather than a marketing campaign. That is, it targeted a specific environmental issue, with a stated goal in mind. It was accompanied by other activities that the company directed at the very same issue. In fact, Patagonia had been involved in campaigns around Bears Ears since 2013.
As a result, it doesn’t fall foul of one of the major issues that can befall environmental marketing – that is, the risk that it appears disingenuous or self-serving. As we’ve indicated above, campaigns that are less well-developed and which are less clearly accompanied by the company putting its money where its mouth is can have the opposite of the intended effect.
Secondly, and by extension, the campaign has nothing resembling a sales pitch tied to it. It does not highlight Patagonia products, detail their benefits, or otherwise encourage sales. In marketing terminology, this is a pure “top funnel” campaign – that is, it is focused exclusively on brand awareness. The outcome of the campaign, from a marketing standpoint, is simply a broader awareness of Patagonia’s commitment to environmental issues and their willingness to invest substantial time and energy to this end.
(In this regard, it’s worth noting that, though there’s a no obvious emphasis on Patagonia’s products, their logo is featured throughout the associated website.)
Finally, the campaign utilises a range of new media technologies as part of its effect, including both VR and satellite mapping. This allows for a powerful, immersive experience that links clearly to the intended message, allowing viewers to encounter the significant natural beauty of Bears Ears. It also places Patagonia firmly at the forefront of developments in media technology, which has further value from a brand perception standpoint.
We have looked at Patagonia in some detail because they offer a somewhat extreme case that is nevertheless emblematic for the development of environmental marketing over the last decade. Their approach pushes to extremes a number of trends that are consistently visible in the most successful environmental marketing campaigns of recent years, as we will see.
However, as we mentioned at the outset, they are something of a limit-case. That is, they show just how far environmental marketing can be taken. In what follows, we’ll look at some examples of environmental marketing campaigns that are similarly innovative and attention-grabbing, but which likely have more concrete implications for brands looking for ways to enter the world of environmental marketing.
Pokémon GO (Earth Day Campaign, 2018-19)
The intimate connection between environmental marketing and new digital technologies is made even clearer by a highly imaginative campaign that developer Niantic utilised for its augmented reality mobile game Pokémon GO in 2018.
Of course, Pokémon GO itself was a success story based around the innovative use of new technologies. Though augmented reality games had existed since the mid-2000s, widespread access to smartphones with high-quality cameras and geo-location features laid the groundwork for a breakthrough into the mainstream. Pokémon GO’s clever integration of these technologies into its compelling and socially orientated game mechanics did the rest.
The socially and physically active dimensions of the Pokémon GO game were fundamental to its popularity, as well as its positive reception in the media. The game required players to track down Pokémon “in the wild”, thereby encouraging both exercise and collaborative, socially driven play. At its peak, the sighting of a rare Pokémon would spread virally across social media and lead to enormous crowds – including a widely reported incident where an extremely uncommon Vaporeon sighting caused a “stampede” in New York City’s famous Central Park.
Niantic’s 2018 campaign is exemplary in the way that it allowed the developer to highlight the core appeal of its game while channelling this into support for a specific environmental issue.
The campaign took place on Earth Day, a long-running and globally recognised day for raising awareness of environmental issues. It involved encouraging Pokémon GO users to attend “clean up” events at various locations across the world. If they did so, they would not only be rewarded with chances to catch rare Pokémon, but players across the world would also get rewards based on the number of people who attended.
After over 4000 players attended the various locations on Earth Day 2018, Niantic subsequently repeated the campaign the following year. In 2019, the number of attendees increased massively to over 17,000 players across 41 countries, contributing 41,000 hours of their time and collecting an enormous 145 tons of rubbish.
As with Patagonia’s Bears Ears campaign, Niantic’s Pokémon GO Earth Day events combined new media technologies with concrete and specific environmental goals. That is, this was not merely an attempt to promote the company’s green credentials but actively contributed to a well-defined environmental campaign in an innovative way.
What was different in this case, and what makes it potentially more valuable as an example, is that it was directly and specifically tied to Niantic’s main product – the Pokémon GO game itself. Not only did it encourage lapsed players to take up the game again, but also highlighted its unique selling points as a game: its emphasis on collective play in real-world environments.
In this sense, while the campaign was similarly focused on brand awareness and perception, it had the potential to directly impact the game’s player base – thereby having a more immediate effect on revenue.
Lacoste (“Save Our Species” campaign, 2018)
Of course, not all great environmental marketing campaigns have relied on cutting-edge technology to make their point. Indeed, doing so may possess certain risks given the increasingly widespread understanding of the environmental impact of digital technologies – from the carbon footprint of data centres used for cloud computing to the fact that many key smartphone components are the result of highly toxic mining practices.
In contrast to the technological complexity of the Patagonia and Pokémon GO campaigns, Lacoste’s 2018 “Save Our Species” campaign was a model of elegance and simplicity, mirroring the company’s branding. After all, Lacoste has utilised the same widely recognised and near-unvarying logo since 1933: a green crocodile with its mouth open.
However, while Lacoste went from strength to strength in recent decades, the same could not be said of its logo’s inspiration. By the second decade of the 21st century, the status of crocodiles in the wild was deeply uncertain. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 7 of the 23 species of crocodile were “critically endangered” as of 2020.
This recognition of the endangered status of crocodiles led, initially, to Lacoste’s involvement in the “Save Your Logo” programme, established by the French environmental non-profit The Explorers Foundation. Through this campaign, Lacoste committed to actively supporting projects aiming to safeguard endangered crocodile species.
The “Save Our Species” campaign was in some respects the logical next step. At the same time, it marked a bold departure for the company – hence its power and effectiveness. After using the same logo for 85 years, the “Save Our Species” campaign saw Lacoste replacing the iconic crocodile with 10 other species, each endangered, for a limited edition run of its trademark white polo shirts.
What is more, the number of shirts available with each logo was the same as the number of the respective animal remaining in the wild. The Anegada Iguana featured on 450 shirts, while only 30 sported the Vaquita, otherwise known as the Gulf of California porpoise.
Again, we can observe the specificity of the campaign. It is focused on raising awareness of (and money for) the plight of ten particular species, and even incorporating the dwindling numbers remaining into the campaign itself.
By contrast with the Patagonia and Pokémon GO campaigns, however, Lacoste’s environmental campaign did not rely on technological innovation. To the contrary, it generates much of its impact from leveraging an extremely refined and recognisable brand identity, such that the smallest of deviations suffices to grab the attention. It is its simplicity that marks it out, not its complexity.
What is more, it was also able to incorporate an extremely familiar marketing strategy in an innovative way. The use of limited-edition products to generate both immediate sales and broader brand interest is a staple of marketing, and here Lacoste was able to incorporate this strategy into the actual message of the campaign.
Clearly, the actual sales volume Lacoste could expect was low, given the extremely limited numbers of each product that were available, and the proceeds were being donated to charity. However, the impact on brand awareness was potentially substantial and long-lasting.
Yet again, we see the core trade-off that is characteristic of successful environmental advertising: substantially downplaying more sales-focused marketing techniques in order to maximise the effect on brand image – and hence to potentially affect sales in an indirect way.
Lush (various campaigns, 2008-2019)
Of course, environmental marketing works best when a company places sustainability at the core of what it does – down to the level of the actual products it produces.
And few companies embody this ethos better than the British cosmetics retailer Lush. The brand has consistently championed a range of progressive issues, from opposing animal testing to supporting LGBQT+ organisations. Just as significantly, it has placed its ethical commitments at the centre of the products it offers – especially when it comes to sustainability issues.
Lush’s commitment to sustainable products has various dimensions, extending to the raw materials they use (70% of which are from self-sustaining sources) and the energy suppliers they work with.
From a marketing standpoint, however, what is most striking is their approach to packaging. While their use of recycled materials is relatively standard – if they nevertheless make a stronger commitment than is common in this area – their commitment to both simplifying and limiting the packaging they use is not.
Since 2008, many of Lush’s cosmetics have been sold in simple, largely unadorned black pots. Any five of these pots, once used, can be returned to Lush’s stores in exchange for a free face mask – following which the pots will be chipped down and remoulded into new ones to form a closed recycling loop.
Thus, the basic, unremarkable design of their packaging not only enables and encourages recycling but also places this front and centre in terms of their brand identity. In offering extremely simple packaging, Lush are essentially making a statement about the irrelevance of packing to their products – and their commitment to ultimately eliminating it.
And this commitment is not merely notional. Over the past decade, Lush have gradually increased their range of “naked” products – that is, products sold with no packaging whatsoever. This includes a range of soaps, shampoos, and bubble baths, all of which are formulated into solid “bars”.
By 2017, Lush’s range of naked products was extensive enough for them to commit to making a number of their stores completely packaging-free – beginning with stores in Milan and Berline. This commitment was, of course, as much a marketing campaign as it was a sales decision. The launch of a “naked” store in Manchester city centre in 2019 was accompanied by a great deal of press attention.
Lush’s success when it comes to incorporating its ethical commitments into its product design is, yet again, derived not from directly displaying its environmentalist credentials in some conventional way. Instead, the design of the products is itself determined by those commitments. As a result, the packaging and branding of their products does still indicate their ethics – but in a way that is both striking in its simplicity and clearly genuine.
As we’ve established above, having some clearly defined environmental strategy as part of your business model is obviously a prerequisite to successfully using environmental marketing campaigns. What Lush’s approach displays is how these two things need not be separate. That is, by incorporating your environmental commitments into your branding, you can make eco-friendliness an active part of your business’ brand identity.
In looking at four different companies’ approaches to environmental marketing, we’ve seen the degree to which it is an area that rewards boldness and innovation.
While more conventional marketing approaches can be ill-suited to eco-friendly campaigns, embracing new technologies or unusual – even counter-intuitive – marketing strategies can be a way to produce truly eye-catching campaigns with a major impact on brand awareness and perception.
Certainly, many of the above campaigns would be challenging to emulate. It is not necessarily practical to produce a large-scale VR experience or transform your product packaging overnight. However, they can serve as encouragement to approach environmental marketing a little differently than you otherwise might. Instead of seeing it as a new source of content for your existing marketing strategies, it is better seen as a chance to think outside the box and experiment with new approaches.
And with that in mind, these campaigns are truly exemplary.