Earth Day: Why brands must be authentic about sustainability

Ryan Curle

21 Apr 2022

Every company nowadays is keen to show their corporate sustainability credentials. In a world where brands are judged on their societal and environmental impact as much as the quality of their products and services, this isn’t surprising. But not all sustainability initiatives are created equal. One of the main calls to action around Earth Day this year is ‘Invest in Our Planet’ – the idea that a healthy planet is not just a nice-to-have, but a necessity to support everything we depend on.

This is about far more than changing a logo or switching some lights off. Take connectivity as one example. We are all familiar with how the pandemic has sped up the digital transformation of organisations and wider society alike. Greater connectivity across the world is clearly a good thing for all kinds of reasons, eliminating physical distances and creating a wealth of economic benefits. Global Internet traffic surged by over 40% in 2020, according to TeleGeography.

All the data we rely on for our cloud services must be stored somewhere. That demand for data centre services has seen an accompanying rise in energy use. Data centres alone account for around 1% of the world’s total electricity demand, according to the International Energy Agency – while the overall carbon footprint of our technology devices and the systems that support them is thought to account for as much as 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions – similar to that produced by the airline industry

Setting a precedent

With increasing power and growth comes increased responsibility – but by combining clean sources of energy with allocating computing resources in smarter ways, huge gains can be made. Amazon is already the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy, for example, while Microsoft has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030.

The path to net zero is not simple, and it will take businesses assessing every aspect of their operations from their supply chain to product design, distribution to IT usage. They wield a great deal of power in where they invest, and who they partner with. For Big Tech in particular, their decisions set a precedent for companies of all sizes and sectors to follow.

All around the world, pressure is increasing on industries to examine their footprint and reduce both waste and emissions. The UK Government has already announced a target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, with a further target to bring these down by 78% by 2035.

Genuine action

In communicating about these initiatives, brands must avoid the risk of greenwashing, where commitments to the environment are presented in a misleading way. For any environmental claim, transparency is crucial. Define in clear terms what changes are being made, and the impact they will have. If it’s purely about staying compliant, that’s fine – but we shouldn’t dress things up as more than they are. The reputational, trust and confidence risks are very real – not to mention the impact on the planet and our ecosystems.

As communications professionals, we can help with the necessary due diligence. Bringing in outside perspectives can mean the difficult questions can be asked before a journalist or customer does, building the kinds of campaigns and communications plans that address these concerns. For example, is a brand’s commitment to the environment grounded in real action, or is it a project that’s about playing catch-up?

We have a responsibility to advise, guide and work collaboratively to ensure brands aren’t just saying the right things and being seen to take the issue seriously – but that they are actually walking the walk too. Earth Day is a yearly reminder for businesses to deliver on their commitments.