In the new world order, brands' role in saving the planet just got bigger
A view from Chris Gorell Barnes

No planet, no profit: in the new world order, brands' role in saving the planet just got bigger

Brands can profit by taking a stand on issues such as climate change, writes Adjust Your Set's chief executive Chris Gorell Barnes.

Another day, another Trump-ism. Last week’s most depressing Trump-ism was the news that the president elect will pull funding from Nasa’s Earth Science Division. Proof, if proof were needed, that The Orange One intends to roll back years of progress on the climate crisis.

According to experts like George Monbiot, this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. And it’s yet another sign that we’re living in a new world order where power is being handed to people with short-termist, self-interested views. In short, governments can no longer be trusted to protect the planet.

To be fair, as Brexit showed, we were already living in an era of burgeoning public distrust in the establishment. This societal shift leaves people increasingly feeling they can no longer rely on governments to solve global issues like climate crisis.

This means that now more than ever is the time for businesses – and brands in particular – to step up to the plate. With growing worldwide evidence that "the people" want to give the political system a damned good kicking, you could argue that brands now have more loyalty, trust and power than politicians.

Brands should take positive action

As the Trump-supporting PayPal founder Peter Thiel and New Balance can attest, people who once voted passionately for politicians but now feel there is no one to represent them can redirect that passion by voting with their wallets instead. So the customer base has become a new form of voter base. And brands should start using this privilege to fill the emerging void of political inertia by both giving a voice to the issues and taking positive action to create change.

At Cannes this year, we saw a blurring of the divide between politics and marketing when UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, took to the stage with marcom’s "big six" to discuss industry support for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It’s encouraging to see advertising is waking up to the issues. But to effect real change, we need to do more than talk.

Action is something Marks & Spencer boldly embraced when it helped develop the Seafish Responsible Fishing Scheme and the Reserve Seafood label. From the boardroom, to the supply chain, to the shop floor; this is a masterclass in using brand power to protect the environment and – mercifully – it’s something that other big brands, like Coca-Cola, are also trying to embrace.

More than box ticking

The moral imperative is clear. What’s perhaps less obvious, but equally as compelling, is the business imperative. Thanks to Unilever’s impressive results regarding its brands with purpose outperforming those without, it’s becoming well-established that social purpose is now much more than a CSR box ticking exercise.

Sustainability is part of the zeitgeist and it’s something that people want to play a part in. So if a brand can offer an opportunity to buy in a way that doesn’t contribute to climate crisis, it can make it easier for people to feel they’re doing their bit. Unilever’s strong stock market performance must be at least partly down to the fact they are giving consumers an option to buy ethically.

Unilever is, of course, widely recognised as a global leader when it comes to progressive policy in support of last year’s COP21 Paris agreement. But Unilever is not alone, because chief executive Paul Polman is part of The B Team, an initiative calling for net-zero emissions by 2050 that also features Virgin’s Richard Branson and Tata’s Ratan Tata.

You could be forgiven for thinking these titans of global commerce are in the enviable position of using their immense revenues to offset emissions. But you’d be wrong. The B Team also features a Chinese construction company, an African telecommunications group and a Brazilian cosmetics manufacturer.

These lesser-known players could have opted for the Trump-style, short-term, quick buck view of make ‘em cheap and stack ‘em high. But they seem to have taken the wiser, longer-term view by hitting upon a crucial truth: not only does purpose give consumers an extra reason to engage with a brand, it also helps future-proof the business. Why? Because there will be no consumers to engage with unless we curb the climate crisis. It’s a simple but stark case of ‘no planet, no profit’.

Chris Gorell Barnes is founder and chief executive at Adjust Your Set and co-founder of the BLUE Marine Foundation.