Sustainable branding can do more harm than good

Sustainable marketing is a growing trend among unsustainable businesses.

By: Savi Raghuraman | News Editor

April 26, 2019

Constant and increasing media coverage of the impending effects of climate change have defined environmental consciousness as one of the key values of many forward-thinking Americans, and companies are rushing to take advantage of this shift in public opinion. Actual sustainable corporate practices have not yet gone mainstream, but the desired appearance of sustainability or respect for the environment has transformed into an advertising phenomenon. Like any other use of moral issues to make company profit, ad campaigns focused on giving a brand an eco-friendly face can be misleading.

Instead of just saying that they’re doing something sustainable when they’re really not, they should actually do something completely sustainable,” senior Margaux Ranson said. “Just spreading awareness isn’t enough when they’re not backing it up.”

H&M’s promotion of their recycling program only encourages customers to buy more clothes.

Fast fashion giant H&M, for example, has numerous initiatives aimed at sustainability, including a program that gives customers a discount when they return old clothes to be recycled. Admirable as these efforts are, they barely lessen the severity of their impact and create the impression that shopping at H&M is good for the environment, when in fact it isn’t. Consumption of any sort has an environmental cost. If a recycling program gives customers a discount, they’re just encouraged to buy more clothes, which cancels out any positive impacts of the program while bringing more profit to the company.

Apple’s newest ad campaign centers on sustainability.

Apple, another infamous example, released a television ad this week featuring different videos of nature taken with iPhones, followed by advice to not “mess with Mother Earth.” The ad makes iPhone purchases seem to be a conscious purchase that channels a respect to the environment. However, Apple’s overall mission is inherently detrimental to the same environment displayed in the advertisement. According to Apple’s environmental report, a single iPhone X has a footprint of 79 kilograms of CO2, not to mention the widespread environmental degradation caused by the company’s mines and factories around the world. With all of the resources it takes to make a single iPhone, and Apple’s conniving tactics that force customers to buy products more frequently, the Earth Day advertisement cannot avoid seeming hypocritical.

Even JUST Water has its opposition at SCHS. Some report that because of its higher price tag, it isn’t successful among its target population: students who purchase plastic water bottles daily. Meanwhile, the students who bring their own reusable water bottles are doing an environmental disservice if they were to switch to boxed water because, even though the bottle is less harmful than plastic bottles, it still takes significant resources to manufacture and transport.

That said, the act of brands marketing themselves as sustainable does raise awareness and perpetuate the shift in public opinion to favor environmentally friendly business practices. For example, just by carrying a JUST bottle, students are making a statement that they recognize the negative impacts of plastic bottles and are making an effort to mitigate that impact.

“In our competitive economy, it’s good for companies to make an effort to promote these sustainable ideas,” senior Spencer Currie said. 

In many cases, though, supporting their sustainable facades with a truly sustainable business model will decrease revenue for these large companies, and it will take concentrated effort on the part of customers for them to change. It is essential, then, for the public to look past the marketing to judge whether a brand really represents their values before purchasing.

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