Nicola Davies, Head of Strategy at Exposure, examines how brands can create compelling sustainable narratives that inspire meaningful conversations, offer hope and galvanise action.

From devastating wildfires to melting ice caps, climate change is – understandably – a challenging topic of conversation. Even when there is a strong consensus that the Earth is indeed warming: the facts of the matter are difficult to understand and even harder to talk about.

But a new and more accurate dialogue is emerging, denying the sceptics of ambiguity. We’re correcting our language to reflect the urgency of the crisis, ditching ‘climate change’ for ‘climate emergency’. And that’s just the very first step towards getting it right.

Since time immemorial, we’ve been telling brands that “actions speak louder”, and to “walk the talk”. But words matter too. The wrong ones can spark a negative reaction – or worse still – no reaction at all.

Without past experience to draw upon, it’s no wonder brands struggle to know what to say or how to say it. And with little but bad advice out there, it’s all too easy to fall into the same traps time and time again.

So, who knows? It might even be in your best interests to ignore any of the following don’ts:

  1. Make it a young person’s issue

Based on the prevailing sustainability narrative, you might assume that young people are the only ones leading the fight against climate change. But this simply isn’t true.

The dominant focus on young people creates the perception that they alone want to save the planet, whilst old people just don’t care.

According to research by New Scientist, this generational conflict is a myth. Older generations are just as worried about climate change. In fact, the research found that they are actually more likely to feel that acting in environmentally conscious ways will make a difference.

Brands who are notoriously obsessed with youth culture (translations: notoriously ageist) further fortify these stereotypes. So instead of obsessing over Gen Z, brands need to bring people together, uniting the generations. Only then can we make a big impact.

Greta says “you are never too small to make a difference” – and she’s quite right. But I would hasten to add: you’re never too old either.

  1. Tell people what to stop doing

Right now, there is an overwhelming focus on all the things we need to stop doing.

Stop eating meat.
Stop driving.
Stop buying plastic.

Stop! The pervasive ‘stop’ narrative creates a culture of fear. Because every time you emphasise the stop, you lose people. People get so completely overburdened that it becomes easier to do nothing.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t stop doing things. But the conversation shouldn’t only be about stopping things. In the fight against a fiery future, the emphasis should be on the fresh starts, big and small, we need to make and keep making.

So don’t bring people down with the things they need to give up. Lift people up with the new things that will propel us towards a more sustainable way of living.

Start eating seasonally.
Start driving electric.
Start recycling.

To inspire hope and action, erase the word ‘stop’ from your climate vocabulary and replace it with the word ‘start’. Fewer no’s, more go’s. Fewer stops, more starts.

  1. Only speak of the positives

With the mainstream media intent on reporting doom-and-gloom, brands tend to take the opposite tack of being overwhelmingly positive. Unrealistically so. Our audience, meanwhile, is seeking a more nuanced approach – and left wanting.

Positivity is important to instil hope, but too much positivity is simply untrustworthy. People are much savvier than you think. They know what’s too good to be true.

Honesty equals credibility. The path to sustainability is infamously difficult and consumers respond well to a more honest articulation of where a brand is. Especially when coupled with an ambitious vision of where you want to be.

To say we're sustainable would be a lie. To say we're doing a little more with each season would be the truth.” –Noah

As with most things in life, sustainability is a spectrum. The important thing is to get started. Be open about where you are on the journey, where you aim to be and how you plan to get there.

It’s time to start subverting the status quo. As a general principle, doing the opposite of the default – especially when it comes to talking sustainability – is likely to yield better results.