We’ve always suspected that how information about sustainability is visualized doesn’t actually engage most audiences, reducing the effectiveness of communications. While carrying out our new research, "How to design sustainability that sells," we realized that the problem was worse than expected.
We set out to build a broad evidence-based perspective of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to visualizing sustainability strategies and initiatives in messaging and communications. We started with a review all of the available academic literature and interviews with experts including a psychologist, a semiotician and an economist. That research revealed fundamental challenges in communicating sustainability and that, while communications seem to be getting better, there is a long way to go.
At a fundamental level, the way sustainability concepts are generally presented isn’t relevant to consumers. Messaging usually relies on a set of clichés and a visual language that most people simply don’t relate to.
We call this aesthetic "stock sustainability," and it’s incredibly common. Sometimes the message is homespun and earthy, sometimes it is dry and corporate. Whatever guise it takes, it relies on a lot of the same bad ideas.
We reviewed the sustainability communications of Forbes magazine’s 100 most valuable brands and found them riddled with terrible clichés — hands holding up a seedling, green planets, endless wind turbines and lightbulbs alongside text with nothing to do with energy.
So many of these communications looked very similar to each other as well, and nothing like the distinctive brand identities that these same companies spend so much time building and guarding.
Communicating about sustainability programs is hard. That makes it easy to fall back on "stock sustainability" messaging, which is a problem for brands. Sustainability has to look good if we want people to buy it. Furthermore, there are some significant challenges to overcome if we want mainstream audiences to really engage with it.
To start with, sustainability is an incredibly complex idea, and an abstract one, making it harder for people to engage with and harder to drive change around it. It has also become wrapped up with a lot of things most people don’t think are relevant to them. For many, sustainability is about politics, science or corporate governance. And for a lot of people, just one of those topics is enough for them to switch off. Combine them, and you have something that is powerfully boring to many people.
What’s more, a lot of sustainability issues are psychologically distant. That’s the mental gap between a person and another person, or a place or an issue. The more distant that something is from our own frame of reference, the less likely we are to engage with it or take action on it.