An Earth Day Call to Action

Brands should use what we’ve learned from COVID-19 to respond to a world in crisis

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been watching a lot more television than usual lately, including shows in real time that have actual commercial breaks. I’ve been observing that in at least several ads, a mournful voiceover reminds us that in these trying times, [insert brand] is here for me, for my family, for all of us.

I’ve got two reactions here: The sameness of these ads (in fact, some are so similar that they even use the same stock footage) has made me discount the intent behind the messages.

Yet many of the companies that sponsor them are doing exactly what I would recommend they do. They aren’t “purpose washing”—that is, they aren’t using the COVID-19 crisis just for ad content. They aren’t pretending to care about me and my family simply to drum up sales. They have really changed the way they do business in response to an existential threat that has changed the way we all live—maybe for good.  

And I’m glad to see so many brands stepping up to do their part during the pandemic. They’re pivoting with ingenuity: repurposing factories to make ventilators and hospital masks, using new and evolving technologies to keep people connected to one another and to lifesaving information, and innovating to deliver familiar products and services in new ways.

Yet the novel coronavirus isn’t the only crisis before us. Climate change is a crisis, too—and it’s every bit as urgent. And so my Earth Day challenge to brands is this: How can we apply this same level of urgency, innovation, and resourcefulness to stopping climate change? Especially now, when too many governments (including our own) are wasting precious time squabbling about whether or not climate change is even happening, brands can seize this opportunity to lead the way to a new, more sustainable and better world.


Brands can be the solution

I love brands that act with environmental priorities at their core: For example, Patagonia is built on a commitment to conservation, encouraging its customers to fall in love with the outdoors to save it. From Impossible Burgers to carbon-neutral beef, brands are emerging all around us that give consumers the tools they need to make better choices for the environment. Tech brands, too, are raising awareness: Google is using its AI power to keep count of the whales displaced due to climate change. Microsoft has gone even farther, pledging to go carbon negative by 2025.

There’s no question about it: More and more, brands are doing the right thing on climate change, and we should celebrate them for it. But we’re in a climate emergency, and it’s time for ALL brands to move beyond business as usual. What’s more, consumers demand we act on issues they care about most, and the environment is at the top of the list.

This pandemic has taught us that brands have an incredible ability to pivot, adapt, and make grand, sweeping changes—and they can do it FAST. From a communications standpoint, they can start by bringing reliable, trustworthy information to people right away. (For inspiration: Lego pulled together this great ad urging kids to “stay home and be a hero”—in just three days!) But we need more than talk. We need action. We need companies to change the way they operate to accommodate the reality of the emergency we are in.

  • We need them to follow Microsoft’s example, listen to the science, and set companywide greenhouse-gas reduction targets—along with concrete plans to meet them.

  • That means we need them to invest in the innovations that can boost sustainability and profits. (According to the recent Environmental Defense Fund Report Business and the Fourth Wave of Environmentalism, “92% of leaders agree advanced technologies can improve both their bottom line and sustainability … yet only 59% are investing for this purpose.”) These investments will cost money—a lot of it. But they will have a high rate of return for us all. Researchers at Project Drawdown estimate that keeping global average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius will save $145 trillion worldwide—and that’s not counting all the money saved by better public health and averted damage to the environment. 

  • Finally, we need companies to speak out and help shape public policy in favor of meaningful action on climate. I know many brands are reluctant to take overtly political stances, and I’m sympathetic to that position—but we are simply out of time. Just as we won’t get through the current COVID crisis without strong political leadership, bold policy is the key to climate action, too. I’ll be blunt: Brands may lose a few customers if they speak up in this way, but our children and grandchildren have so much more to lose if they don’t.

Right now, we are living what happens when we don’t act in time to avert a crisis. We can’t continue to drag our heels on climate. And so I ask: How is your brand responding to the urgency of the pandemic compared with your response to the climate crisis? Are you acting as if the house is on fire? Because it is.