COP27’s Historic Failure Puts the Planet’s Future in the Hands of Brands

While Cop 27 continues the age-old debate around whether wealthier nations should pay climate change compensation to those most affected, it’s brands that have the real power to make immediate and meaningful change.

With highly engaged global audiences and ridiculously frequent consumer transactions, global brands have more ability to effect change than governments who struggle to get beyond ‘talk’, are seemingly railroaded by lobbyists and increasingly face a disillusioned populace.

So why aren’t more brands doing more?

I’ve witnessed discussions over the years where big businesses claim they can’t afford to “leave consumers behind” and they need to take ‘small steps’ on the journey to a green and sustainable business.

Bullshit.

Today, in every sense, speed is everything in business. And due to the lack of action from international talk-fests like COP, that’s even more true when it comes to a brand’s impact on the planet.

Ironically, thanks to some of the world’s largest polluters, consumers have grown to expect purchases delivered the same day, food within 15 minutes and every possible whim indulged quickly. Yet many global brands are glacial at instigating major overhauls of ingredients, materials, packaging and energy use.

However, history – even recent history – proves brands can make fundamental changes overnight (more often than not, end up growing their business as a result).

Just look at what happened to the UK’s beer industry when overnight, Anthony Simmons-Gooding switched Whitbread beer from bottles to cans. Consumers couldn’t get enough of it. And the entire industry had to follow, fast. (Same thing happened with the switch to lager.)

So, when Yvon Chouinard announced Patagonia had made Earth it’s only shareholder,

pumping all future profits into protecting Mother Earth, overnight, the brand became even more sought after by consumers. What’s more the brand cut through 2022’s polycrisis with stories running on a vast array of B2C and B2B media, endless mentions on social media, it was one of the few positive news stories to resonate this year.

It’s this kind of bold leadership from big, global brands that we need today. Not another COP-out conference with 35,000+ people jetting in for a photo-op, sponsored by the world’s leading polluter of plastic for the fifth year in a row.

Brands have an opportunity to lead, and consumers are increasingly seeking out climate leadership so now it’s time for brands to step out of the shadows and make the game-changing decisions that deliver proper profits to both the planet and shareholders at once.

A bit like creativity in our industry out-performing average advertising, there’s acres of evidence that proves when a brand truly supports the planet, consumers support the brand and investor profits grow. B Corps are feted as growing more quickly than non B Corps and the UK is now home to over 1,000 – up 28% in the past year. Consumers are fast turning to support brands that are putting their money where their mouth is.

For those who need a little more encouragement, just look to the likes of Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion – two sustainability consultants who tired of the boardroom appetite for greenwashing and went it alone to start the sustainable trainer brand, Veja and have sold over 3 million pairs so far. Since they took the leap, we’ve seen TOM’s, allbirds and other sustainable brands enter the market resulting in consumer demand that has forced the likes of Nike and Adidas to launch sustainable lines too.

In short, the world cannot wait for reversible, ‘negotiable’ and often ‘optional’ global government alignments. As business leaders we cannot wait for another disappointing COP. We know what we need to do to reduce climate change and brands’ impact on the world. Waiting will only cost us more in the long run, as the climate disrupts supply chains, causes shortages and large-scale migration – none of which make for a positive trading environment.

Nor can big business excuse its lack of progress on the need to first see consumer demand. As Steve Jobs is renowned for saying, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.

Without doubt, we need more Yvon Chouinard’s making more heroic moves to quell climate change, today. After all, it’s good for business, not to mention the planet.

Malcolm Poynton is global CCO at Cheil Worldwide

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