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Is the climate crisis a communications issue?

By James Gee | August 30, 2022

For years now we’ve had the tools and technologies to fight the climate crisis. Cheap and renewable energy, zero direct emissions transport, efficient zero-carbon heating. The challenge for a while now hasn’t been whether we can transition the world to more sustainable behaviours, but the messaging around whether we should, and whether we are.

Listening to many big-brands would lead us to believe that our ‘green’, ‘’carbon-neutral, ‘eco-friendly’ ways of life rid us of any personal responsibility for the impact we have on the world around us, yet this messaging is clearly false. As brands and communicators, there is a duty to communicate truths, driving sustainable change in a responsible way. So, when we already have the technologies to transition our world to a low-carbon, circular economy, is the climate crisis a communications issue?


The past

Marketing messaging is powerful and has been used strategically for good and bad for decades. The term ‘natural gas’ enabled the fossil fuel economy to continue to burn through carbon-intensive fuels under the banner of a natural, responsible resource. The term ‘carbon footprint’ shifted responsibility from the handful of companies responsible for over a third of historic carbon emissions, to the general public choosing between lentils and avocados at the check-out.

For a deeper look into the previous large scale communications efforts surrounding climate change, and the damage it’s done in obfuscating the truth, explore the BBC’s Big Oil v the World.

Acknowledging and understanding the damage communicators have done to our climate progress is an essential part of learning how to communicate responsibly and honestly in the years ahead.


The present

Brands and businesses may be contributing to this miscommunication without even knowing it. We all play a part, whether intentionally or not, and the language we use and the image we portray can be either a help or a hindrance in implementing real change. Some of the ways businesses could be misleading their audiences are:

  • using vague and ill-defined language such as ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’
  • inaccurate use of technical terms such as ‘net-zero’, ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘circularity’
  • using ‘green’ imagery which doesn’t relate to their actual offering
  • overpromising performance or certification – schemes such as BREEAM Excellent or LEED Platinum are challenging to achieve, so any claims must be truthful and evidenced
  • extrapolating figures or claims – looking far into the future based on limited current data is neither helpful nor genuine
  • being selective with information that doesn’t tell the full story


The future

A heightened focus on ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) practices means businesses both across the UK and across the globe are evaluating where they are now, and where they want to be in the future. Whilst some aspects of this are currently voluntary, reporting on environmental practices and social value are increasingly becoming expected – even compulsory – particularly within the construction industry. It doesn’t matter what size your business is, we can all take steps to improve our impact, and to report it in a meaningful way.


Case study

At Smith Goodfellow, we undertook an Impact Report in 2021, reflecting on our business’ approach to sustainability – taking a holistic approach by looking at planet, people and profit. This then helped us to form a strategy for the future, implementing honest and accurate communications to describe out climate journey. This means celebrating successes and acknowledging the challenges we face. Our 2021 report was just the starting point for us and, going forward, we will be publishing updates to our environmental policy and reporting annually on our environmental impact, social value and approach to governance. We know there will always be room for improvement, but we are committed to talking about our journey with transparency.


How can brands communicate their response to the climate crisis?

The first step in being able to communicate your response to the climate crisis is to have something to communicate. Simply saying all the right things is a thin, useless veil for brands wanting to jump into the sustainable limelight. Instead, audiences are looking for tangible actions and visons which create lasting social, environmental and economic change.

Next is to be transparent. Your listeners, readers and views are looking for real, small steps, not huge unrealistic leaps. Be clear about your pathways and acknowledge that however far into your climate journey you are, you are by no means at the end point. This means openly discussing setbacks, challenges and areas which you simply cannot tackle (yet).

Evidence, evidence, evidence. The social age means brands are never more than a Google search away from being disproven, so ensuring that claims, facts and figures are accurate and evidenced is fundamental to gaining credibility and trust in a space constantly battling against greenwashing. Cite sources, link calculations and report real figures compared to those forecasted.

Finally, the climate crisis requires messaging to be relatable and realistic. This means bringing calculations and targets into real terms – a kWh of electricity is difficult to quantify for most audiences, but 4 miles in an electric car is tangible, and a tonne of CO2 is unimaginable to most, but the weight of 400 bricks gives some perspective.


What’s next?

The next decade will likely determine the way of our future, whether we prosper in a sustainable world which balances people, planet and profit, or whether the constant messaging of climate uncertainty and disinformation drives us into simply fighting one problem after the next, or worse still, paralyses us into inaction. The way that brands communicate is pivotal – it will be the difference between mass adoption of clean energy or not, the prioritisation of climate legislation or not, the world around us being recognisable or not.

Businesses, brands and communicators must use the years ahead to tell authentic stories about real actions that are useful, truthful and relatable.