Why Brands Need to Lead the Charge on Climate

This article originally appeared in Inside FMCG on Sep 29, 2021.

The release of the IPCC’s report on climate change showed us with shocking clarity that the Earth will continue on a path to catastrophe and that every action towards immediate and meaningful emissions reductions is going to be crucial in order to avoid said catastrophe.

Disappointingly (though unfortunately not all that surprising), the Australian Government’s response to this report is that no additional action will be taken. We’ll apparently plod along towards a 2050 target (which will be two decades too late), with our misleading accounting and schoolboy finger-pointing at developing countries.

But this won’t actually be very helpful, nor will it save us from the impending impacts of climate collapse.

Therefore the message is clear: it will be up to private enterprise to urgently lead the sustainable revolution. Brands will need to reorganise and reprioritise their efforts on creating a sustainable future.

If necessity is the mother of invention, there is no more necessary time than now.

The good news is that this presents a most unique opportunity to innovate. Some of the world’s best innovations have emerged from times of great uncertainty and crisis. We don’t have to look too far beyond the past 18 months, of course, but innovation has long been deemed essential to defend against formidable and looming threats, well before the pandemic.

Post World War II saw FMCG really start to charge ahead, having nailed what it meant to build brands for the mass market and engage that market with a cycle of new products.

This model hasn’t changed that drastically since then. But now it must.

Brands will need to assess their capabilities in the context of how to apply them to either directly solving the challenges ahead, or expeditiously mitigating the risks they’ll present. 

I think we need to “rebrand” what it means to innovate. 

FMCG especially has an arguably skewed view of innovation as being new product development, but innovation isn’t limited to something we can put on the shelf. Instead, it may look like collaborating with unlikely partners to leverage capabilities for a common good. We could see game-changing partnerships borne from this crisis: from the way brands procure to the way brands distribute. 

No effort put towards solving this will go to waste. 

Brands will need to address these challenges immediately and with a 10-year lens. Otherwise they’ll be forced to make decisions under increasing pressure as the government – and even more critically, the destructive impacts of climate change themselves – begins to catch up. 

It seems to me that waiting for initiatives to be mandated by retailers isn’t the most astute option either. While for the most part Coles, Woolworths and ALDI are tending to focus on their own sustainability initiatives right now, it won’t be long before they increase pressure on suppliers to follow suit. 

There aren’t likely going to be any surprises as to what these demands will be. And they more than likely require some bold action from brands – starting with reviewing current sustainability statements (many of which will need a hard reality check).

Some brands are already taking up the mantle. Who Gives A Crap is letting their voice be heard on the matter in an effort to agitate some necessary urgency and activate their audience. Organic children’s snack food company Whole Kids is taking a different approach, which is attracting the attention of global leaders with warm gestures – and very real action towards their ambitious but necessary Net-Zero 2030 project.

Both companies are B Corp certified (Whole Kids the first food business in Australia to achieve the certification). It’s exciting to see brands step up to the plate to vocalise their positions so clearly. This will undoubtedly start to encourage consumers to compare brands like these to their traditional FMCG counterparts.

If “marketing isn’t just the responsibility of one department, but the whole company”, this is more urgently true of sustainability.

It simply can’t be the sole responsibility of one department or role. It must be embedded into values and everything the business does or, quite frankly, come 2030 there won’t be much business left.

Sustainability from a business point of view isn’t just about the environment – it’s about creating conditions for the business to endure in the long term. In most cases, addressing sustainability throughout the company actually leads to positive performance. 

To tackle the decarbonisation of our economy and a decade of challenges ahead of us, brand communication efforts will need an increased focus on rallying the entire supply chain to the cause. Whole-of-company vision and values will need total buy-in, and it will need to get personal. Because it will be.

But the business cases that will need to be developed for brands to create sustainable operations may not always have clear-cut growth figures to sign off on. This is where we will see the moral compass of executive leadership teams across the country get put to the test. 

Action will certainly need to get far more concrete than some of the current sustainability statements might otherwise indicate. It will quickly be untenable to be claiming to be working towards a “35 per cent reduction in emissions” or “Reducing energy usage by 15 per cent”, because consumers and retailers will be vitally asking “Compared to what?” and questioning “Why not net zero?” We’ll need to see brands become far more transparent in their efforts, and, dare I say it for fear of offending my marketing colleagues, remove every skerrick of marketing puffery, which so many of the publicly available sustainability commitments currently reek of.

If someone had warned us about Covid and the extent of its damage to the economy, might we have been better prepared for it?

It’s difficult to contemplate tackling a looming crisis when we’re currently in the midst of another. But what if we’d had irrefutable evidence that Covid was on its way? And what if we knew a specified timeframe and the conditions that would lead to its spread? What if we had a list of specific actions we could take to mitigate the devastation it posed? 

Climate disasters are not hypothetical. We are on the path for a 1.5-degree increase as our best-case scenario now. The business case has been presented to us in the form of a 3949-page report, distilling years of work from thousands of the world’s leading climate scientists. 

Brands now have a choice: leverage their eye-watering market power to ensure the future is one that has consumers still in it to buy from them. Or wait for the inevitable.

The government isn’t going to save us. Perhaps brands can.

The Purpose Edit

Curated insights for conscious organisations and entrepreneurs shaping a just, fair, and sustainable economy. We handpick the most interesting reads and resources from 50+ newsletters on strategy, innovation, and climate change.


The Purpose Edit

Curated insights for conscious organisations and entrepreneurs shaping a just, fair, and sustainable economy. We handpick the most interesting reads and resources from 50+ newsletters on strategy, innovation, and climate change.

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