Swallowing the sustainability pill

Written by Natalia Bus | 14th October 2022




UNLIMITED recently gathered sustainability-oriented stakeholders spanning major brands and all manner of industries in an informal meeting of minds. Our aim? Unpicking the sensitivity around the ‘S’ Word by injecting different perspectives and experiences into the discussion.

What we found front and centre was the belief that everyone is on a journey. Whether it be brands, internal stakeholders, or consumers, we find ourselves at different points of this continuum, all striving for a more sustainable world. No one has cracked the code, but it’s important to start somewhere and there’s always room for improvement and finesse.

The journey is long and can feel loaded with risk for brands, but there are certainly tools and devices that you can apply to power your progress. The roundtable discussion explored a few of these below.



At the risk of sounding cliché, positivity is powerful when it comes to sustainability. A key finding of our Human Understanding Lab’s research when they surveyed UK consumers on their attitudes towards sustainability, was that it’s time to apply a glass is half full approach. The overload of information and atmosphere of doom and gloom around the issue can leave people stressed, anxious, and unable to act.

To connect with today’s consumers, brands need to be solutions-focused and look to the future while not diminishing the weight and urgency of the issue at hand. According to the sustainability leaders we spoke to, one of the biggest challenges in the climate change movement is the tendency to reel off alarming facts and figures, rather than painting a positive picture of what the world will look like if we do manage to get our house in order.

Our own internal experts agreed that the latter is a far more impactful way of trying to affect change. In fact, there is genuine proof that it pays to be positive. Behavioural science tells us that it is counterproductive to guilt-trip or punish non-sustainable behaviours. Scaremongering can leave us frozen and prone to inaction rather than encouraging us to transform.

Positivity is often unlocked through comms, where humour can be a strong asset. Seventh Generation’s ad with comedian Maya Rudolph is a stellar example. In an effort to urge people to switch to recycled toilet paper, the actress delivers a soulful performance of the ‘Trees and Bs’ song, lamenting “it’s not a tree’s duty to clean that booty”, among other equally amusing rhymes. The intermingling of humour with a serious call to action lands the message more effectively.



Not an earth-shattering premise for businesses by any means, but we’d be remiss not to mention the crucial role that data needs to play when it comes to the ‘S’ Word. The importance of gathering, analysing, and applying data should not be played down for:

  • Guiding brands’ decision-making: do you consult data from your campaigns to develop, test and optimise comms?
  • Validating any claims around sustainability, both inwardly within the business and outwardly to clients and prospects.

When discussing the ins and outs of greenwashing during our roundtable, the conversation came back to proof points time and again. Despite industry peer pressure, the temptation to jump on the bandwagon, or commercial demand, brands need to ensure that they have the data to back up any claims, promises, and comms or marketing activations they put into motion. We’ve seen it before, and will no doubt see it again: fail to do this and the truth will out.



Not everyone is on the same page when it comes to sustainability. According to the Human Understanding Lab’s study, 50% of Brits are already active in green living, while 18% are still in the “planning” phase. This is why brands need to understand the different customer journey segments to effectively communicate, engage, and work with them. Both the B2B and B2C stakeholders we spoke to agreed that even if this means adding a layer of complexity to your comms and marketing, it will pay off in the long run.

The lens with which you apply segmentation will contract and expand depending on the size of your company. Different regions, countries, and demographics will respond to different messages and behavioural nudges. For example, the Nordic countries’ culture of caring for nature means that native companies believe that it’s their duty to be sustainable, making their strategies for connecting with consumers unique in comparison to elsewhere across the globe.

The Human Understanding Lab’s report, The ‘S’ Word: A Brand’s Guide to Sustainability, applied implicit neuroscience techniques to delve below the surface of UK respondents’ perceptions of the ‘S’ Word. One of the areas that the research explored in-depth, is the importance of segmentation, pointing to three distinct groups present in the population. The Planners, Adopters and Deniers all differed in demographics and, more importantly, motivations, emotional levers, and attitudes to sustainability. Looking at these different profiles, brands need to take a multi-layered, human-led approach to ensure that their sustainability strategy appeals to all and doesn’t alienate loyal customers.

Despite the different approaches needed, it’s crucial to remember that the golden thread of honesty and positivity can unify even the most disparate audience types. Our brains are hardwired to detect anything that rings untrue, making authenticity vital to all brand activations.



Our insights don’t end there. In the course of our discussion, our participants illuminated a number of other devices that brands can use to drive forward their journey to sustainability. Get a flavour of some of these below:

  • Be transparent about costs: Faced with the cost of living crisis, it’s even more crucial for brands to communicate where the added costs for sustainable products come from, evidencing why long-term cost investment should win out over short-term financial anxiety.
  • Play on the power of the unspoken: Sustainability can operate in the background of a business. In fact, many brands will actively be making gains in the sustainability sphere without drawing direct attention to it. Actions often speak louder than words and, for the right brand, this approach can be a powerful and less risky way of making a difference.
  • Look to others for inspiration: Patagonia’s recent announcement may immediately come to mind, but there are institutions out there nailing it that you might not think to look to. The German National Tourist Board’s ‘Feel Good’ campaign to promote sustainable tourism certainly warrants a look.
  • Take charge of perceptions: Authenticity is king when it comes to the ‘S’ Word. Start by establishing a strong sense of what your brand is, and which issues you are in a unique position to tackle. Equally, if your industry is by definition unsustainable, don’t be afraid to show leadership and break out of the box it may be penning you in.



There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the ‘S’ Word. But maximising positivity, putting proof around your activations, and speaking to different groups in a language that they’ll understand and respond to, are a great place to start for brands.

UNLIMITED can help. With deep expertise across research, strategy, and creativity, the Human Understanding Lab can guide you at every stage of developing, refining, and implementing your sustainability comms and marketing strategies, whilst ensuring consistency at all your consumer touchpoints.

If you have a specific challenge for us or would like to hear more about how we can work together, please get in touch with our experts at Faye.Hawkins@unlimitedgroup.com or Cristina.Balanzo@walnutunlimited.com.