The historic failure of COP27 puts the future of the planet in the hands of brands

As COP27 continues the age-old debate about whether the wealthiest nations should pay climate change reparations to those hardest hit, it is brands that have the real power to bring about immediate and meaningful change.

With highly engaged global audiences and ridiculously frequent consumer transactions, global brands have more capacity to effect change than governments struggling to move beyond the “speak,” are seemingly dogged by lobbyists, and face an increasingly disillusioned population.

So why aren’t more brands doing more?

Over the years I’ve seen discussions where big companies say they can’t afford to “leave consumers behind” and need to take “baby steps” on their journey to green and sustainable business.

bullshits.

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

Ironically, thanks to some of the world’s biggest polluters, consumers expect purchases to be delivered the same day, food delivered within 15 minutes, and every conceivable whim catered to quickly. Yet many global brands are glacial in instigating major overhauls of ingredients, materials, packaging and energy consumption.

However, history, even recent history, shows that 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 beer industry when Anthony Simmons-Gooding switched Whitbread beer from bottles to cans overnight. Consumers can’t get enough. And the entire industry had to follow, fast. (The same thing happened with the bottom switch.)

Thus, when Yvon Chouinard announced that Patagonia had made the Earth its sole shareholder,

by pumping all future profits into protecting Mother Earth, overnight, the brand has become even more sought after by consumers. Additionally, the brand has weathered the 2022 polycrisis with stories running across a range of B2C and B2B media, endless mentions on social media, it was one of the few positive news stories to ring out this year.

It’s this kind of bold leadership from big global brands that we need today. Not another COP-out conference with over 35,000 people rushing for a photo, sponsored by the world’s top plastic polluter for the fifth consecutive year.

Brands have the opportunity to lead, and consumers are increasingly seeking climate leadership, so now is the time for brands to step out of the shadows and make game-changing decisions that simultaneously bring appropriate returns to both the planet and shareholders.

Much like how creativity in our industry outpaces the average advertising, there are acres of evidence that shows when a brand truly supports the planet, consumers support the brand, and investors’ bottom lines grow. B Corps are celebrated as growing faster than non-B Corps and the UK is now home to over 1,000 more people 28% in the last year. Consumers are quickly 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 grew tired of the board’s appetite for greenwashing and went from alone to start sustainable sneaker brand, Veja and have sold over 3 million pairs so far. Since making the jump, 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 as well.

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

Nor can big business justify the lack of progress on the need to see consumer demand first. As Steve Jobs is known to have said, “People don’t know what they want until you show them.”

Without a doubt, we need more heroic moves by Yvon Chouinard to crack down on climate change today. After all, he’s good for business, not to mention the planet.

Malcolm Poynton is global CCO at Cheil Worldwide

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