Advertising’s role in shifting to sustainable behaviours

We look at the advertising industry’s role in shifting to sustainable behaviours.

Charlotte Cameron
Shifting sustainable behaviours in advertising
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It’s sometimes hard to imagine how our individual actions can help solve one of the most pressing challenges we face. Is tackling the climate crisis, and ultimately moving to a state of regeneration, within our power? As consumers, we have a significant and lasting impact on the state of our planet and the future we want for it.  

Why brands are talking about sustainability

Increasingly brands are embedding sustainability into their ethos’ and communicating this to their customers through their advertising and marketing.  

Conventional advertising has often been the catalyst for negative environmental impacts by encouraging customers to buy and consume more. An endless quest for better and newer “stuff” has encouraged a consumerist society where goods and services are seen as in endless supply.  

With increased knowledge and concern around climate change and human’s direct impact on it, the world has shifted to a stronger focus on sustainability: a contrast to traditional advertising aims.  

This shifting landscape, and the global push to a net zero future, has meant that consumers are becoming more aware of their own impact. Companies are adapting to this and are recognising the business benefits that come with it.  

As well as an improved brand reputation, companies are attracting and retaining talent as well as consumers, thanks to an increased focus on sustainability communicated truthfully and authentically. It helps to future-proof businesses, while lowering operational cost and reducing waste.   

A 2021 study showed that a third of UK consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, demonstrating the commercial opportunities available for companies investing in sustainability.  

Regulation too is having an impact. At COP26 in 2021 it was announced that most big UK firms and financial institutions will be made to demonstrate how they intend to hit net zero.  

Despite this increased focus on sustainability, studies show there is still a gap between attitudes and actions of  some consumers. While consumers want to do the right thing, this isn’t always translated into their behaviour.  

Translating attitudes into action

While sustainability continues to grow in importance for companies globally, there is more that businesses can do to help increase sustainable behaviours among their consumers.  

To avoid greenwashing, this can only be done once the company has committed to their own sustainability through measuring their carbon footprint and understanding their own impact on the planet while actively working to reduce this. 

Here are some routes companies are using to influence behaviours that are good for the planet: 

Social influence 

As social creatures, we are often influenced by the behaviours and expectations of others, and it can be key to helping people adopt more sustainable behaviours.  

This can be through changing social norms, where beliefs about what is normal or appropriate significantly influences behaviour. These social norms have created increased awareness over past decades around things like littering, recycling and conserving energy.  

Innovative recycling campaigns have been a critical factor in shaping consumer behaviour. From incentivising recycling through brands offering discounts when you return your empty products, to showcasing the uses of recycled materials through an outdoor advertising campaign, companies are using their creativity to influence positive change.  

Making it easy 

People may see adopting these actions as time-consuming or difficult to carry out. Making sustainability straight-forward and accessible for the consumer will mean they are more likely to adopt behaviours that will turn into habits.  

Marketing and communications teams can help further this through simple and informative messaging, informing consumers of the desired and undesired actions.  

Sir David Attenborough urges people to view issues of climate change as a political and communications challenge as much as a scientific or technological one. “We have the skills to address it in time, all we need is the global will to do so.” Marketing and communications play a vital role in this through capturing the imagination and passion of consumers in order to influence change.  

Positive emotions 

Studies show that consumers are more likely to engage in sustainable behaviours when they experience positive affects and feelings of joy and pride. Optimism and a sense of hope for a better future can help motivate more of these positive behavioural changes.  

Feelings around an “affinity with nature” can help spark sustainable actions, for example in response to “cute” appeals featuring animals, or inspiring images of nature that humans want to help preserve.  

Organisations like WWF do a good job to mobilise action through visual campaigns that highlight the beauty of our planet and the animals who inhabit it. Communications such as this video demonstrate the interconnectedness between people and nature and illustrates what will be lost if we don’t take climate action now.    

Information and knowledge 

One simple way marketers can help encourage behaviour that is good for the planet is through presenting information and facts that helps equip consumers to make smart, ethical choices. A lack of knowledge and awareness is often seen as a barrier to sustainable progress. 

 A consumer is unlikely to engage in these types of actions without an understanding for the problem, potential positive actions and possible consequences.  

Putting the sustainability information of a product on the packaging itself is a great way to give consumers the knowledge needed to make informed decisions. However it’s important that this information is transparent and honest.  

One company that is displaying their sustainability through packaging is sustainable wine company Green Roots. Las Bodegas’ Operations Manager Alistair Coulthurst said, “we are attempting to tackle greenwashing head on. By putting all our sustainability information (both good and bad!) front and centre, we are giving ourselves nowhere to hide. We will keep having our data verified by Planet Mark and continue working with our contacts within the world of sustainability to constantly interrogate our information ensuring we are up to date with all future changes.”