Make Climate Meaningful
How companies can connect with customers on climate, and why progress depends on it
Climate action needs customers
The time for debate is over. The time for action is now.
Policy is starting to shift, and people are starting to act.
But to drive scale, we need companies to lead, and a credible business case for change.
Customers are the missing link — until companies believe that their customers value climate leadership, investment and action will remain woefully behind.
This is not a failure of intention; it’s a failure of narrative.
Too much talk, too little action
That is how history will judge this decade’s response to climate change. We are drastically off track, currently driving predicted warming of 3.2°C by 20501.
Perhaps the judgment is fair. Perhaps the talk is all hot air, and we just want to appear to care. But there is another, more optimistic, interpretation—we do care, but we care in isolation, without connecting to each other.
To explain: Most customers and most companies care about sustainability, but:
- Customers overlook their ability to influence what companies do, and are largely ignoring and discounting company efforts;
- Companies overlook their ability to influence what customers do, and are largely overlooking opportunities to innovate around customers’ unmet sustainability needs
The opportunity cost of this mutual avoidance is too high to continue. Companies and customers need each other to have meaningful impact. Companies need customers to create the business case for change. Customers need companies to drive change on a scale bigger than themselves.
How do we break this cycle, so that companies and customers can work together?
To connect, companies need to make their climate strategy meaningful to their customers. We lay out three key steps:
- Understand: Start with your customers’ “why”
There are many different reasons why customers care about climate change. To connect, companies must look deeper to tap into this underlying motivation.
- Involve: Live and share your own “why”
Customers must understand your motivation and your vision, and see themselves in it. If it sounds like you’re just checking the sustainability box, they won’t take you seriously.
- Inspire: Create a beacon to bring your “why” to life
Telling a good story isn’t enough. Even if large-scale change isn’t possible as quickly as consumers would want, companies must show meaningful commitment and progress through breakthrough “beacon” offerings.
The challenge: Everyone cares. But the connection is missing.
2/3 of customers are aware, concerned and say they are willing to pay more for sustainable options to fight climate change2.
…but don’t adjust spending
Just 3% of airline customers pay $1 to offset the carbon of their flight. Across industries, uptake of green products has been weak; the few propositions that do cut through are rarely those that have the most impact.
In a recent study, we discovered that customers would prefer their bank to give every customer a plastic-free credit card rather than commit hundreds of billions to sustainable financing.
60% of Fortune 500 companies now have climate commitments3. Climate change became a top 10 CEO priority for the first time this year4, and mentions of ESG on earning calls have increased 20x in the past four years5.
…but fail to engage customers.
Customers know little—and believe less—about what companies are doing on climate change.
In a survey of customer perception of more than 250 brands across the UK and US, we found only one brand where most customers believe it is doing enough on climate change. That brand is Tesla6.
Rebuilding this connection is critical for climate action
This disconnect matters. It drives a vicious cycle of disengagement, slowing effective climate action for customer and company alike:
But the inverse is also true. If we can find a way to connect customers and companies on climate, we can supercharge the world’s ability to respond to climate change, release substantial investment and accelerate behavior change.
The companies that build the connection will be rewarded
Two factors drive how and why customers choose a particular brand; connection (if customers “love” the brand) and progress (if the brand enables them to do something they couldn’t do before). Brands that outperform on these two factors become their customers’ “Go-to Brands” and are rewarded with stronger revenue growth and business resilience.
Perceptions around climate action are strongly correlated with both these factors as well. Those that are seen to be playing their part are more likely to be loved (61% correlation) and seen as enabling progress (51% correlation)8.
While climate concern does not drive how we choose products, it does affect how we perceive brands. Climate performance correlates with brand love.
Humanity is the missing link
Companies have tried to connect with customers on climate, but few companies are cutting through. We have found two reasons for this, and both stem from companies overlooking our human biases.
People connect with their footprint, not yours
The concept of a personal carbon footprint, originally invented by the oil and gas industry, is the primary lens through which people view climate change (see Chart 1). Customers want to feel that they are doing the right thing. Many want to feel the social validation that comes from being seen to be doing the right thing. And they want brands to help them get those feelings.
Most corporate communications on climate change, however, have nothing to do with the individual. The commitments typically focus on the company’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and are often buried in a dense ESG report. While more than 90% of the S&P 500 have published an ESG report, less than 10% of US brands have achieved meaningful customer awareness of their climate actions. In a world where people are inundated every day with thousands of messages from companies, it’s asking a lot to expect people to care about something with such unclear connection to them.
Chart 1: “The biggest contribution I can make on sustainability is to reduce my own carbon footprint.”
People connect with today, not tomorrow
How to work with human biases
AliPay launched Ant Forest in 2016. Customers using the AliPay app can collect green points when they choose sustainable options and convert the points into planting trees.
This initiative translates an abstract, future good (choosing a more sustainable option) into a tangible, instant token for customers. The token acts both as a personal validation (I’m doing the right thing) and a social signal (I’m doing more good than others). By working with customer biases, rather than against them, AliPay is having big impact, both in the real world (planting more than 100 million trees), and in brand perceptions (57% of Chinese customers see Ant Financial as a climate leader).
Future-self discounting is a long-established concept in behavioural psychology — people see their future-self as a different person and discount any benefits or risk to that person.
Combine this future-self discounting with skepticism about companies’ commitment to climate change and you get a potent combination that drives people to disconnect with any future commitment that companies make (see Chart 2).
Nevertheless, corporate sustainability stories are typically (and necessarily) future-focused, heroing long-term commitments.
Chart 2: “I don’t trust the commitments that companies make about climate change, what matters is what they are doing now.”
There is no “green persona”
There are many different reasons why customers care about climate change. To connect, companies must look deeper to tap into this underlying motivation.
A pervasive assumption is that climate engagement is concentrated among younger, wealthier and more left-wing cohorts. Our research shows that this is both false and unhelpful. No matter which demographic you target, around 70% of that population is worried about climate change (see Chart 3).
For companies, there are two implications
Climate engagement is already mainstream, not concentrated in a niche segment. This means that companies can’t put off engaging in this topic because “my customers don’t care.” They do care, and sooner or later you will be expected to show you care and are moving forward.
Second, many customers will feel left out by the focus of your current sustainability story. Climate communication that focuses on young, urban, prosperous people risks disconnecting from the majority. This may be the right strategy for some companies, but it should not be the default position for all.
Their “why” is more complex than you think
Rather than focus on a particular demographic, strong sustainability stories focus on motivation. The even spread of concern illustrated in Chart 3 could suggest a broad and homogeneous market to tap, but that is not the reality. Motivations are diverse and are just not revealed by demographic cuts. Instead, we look at motivation through a moral lens to understand the fundamental reason why a person believes we should act on climate change.
Our research uncovering motivations based on foundational morals reveals multiple reasons why people care about climate change. Two segments that strongly support action on climate change are “The Humanitarian” and “The Traditionalist.” Each of the two segments makes up around 20% of the highly-engaged population, but their reasons for engaging and their framing are vastly different.
- Is motivated by equality. They believe people should be treated equally, see inequality as a societal failure, and believe in the need for structural change to enable true equality.
- Sees sustainability as transformation. They believe it’s part of a broader transformation to a fairer world, which also requires the transformation of corporate and political institutions.
- Is motivated by continuity. They hark back to “better days,” and have a strong respect for authority, institutions and following hierarchy and rules.
- Sees sustainability as conservation. They view it as part of a broader desire to protect the nation’s heritage, culture and beauty for future generations.
Engaging a new wave of climate activists
RePlanet, an environmental movement advocating for the rapid adoption of green technologies, used the upsurge in community feeling following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to engage an unlikely cohort of climate activists.
The company’s #SwitchOffPutin campaign connected climate activism with doing your bit to protect your country and your belief-system. This positioning taps into the heart of the “Traditionalist” mindset, and drove a significant swell of support from previously quiet groups.
As these examples show, motivation matters — but it’s not obvious. Companies that don’t understand why their customers care are playing a guessing game, with customer apathy or rejection as likely outcomes. No wonder the take-up of bland “green” product propositions has been so low.
Customers must understand your motivation and your vision and see themselves in it. If it sounds like you’re just checking the sustainability box, customers won’t take you seriously.
Without a “why” you’re just a robot
The transition to net zero is a huge human experiment. Thousands of people are spending every waking hour puzzling over how to accelerate change. But this story of human endeavor is curiously absent from most companies’ sustainability story.
This is a miss, not just because it undervalues the hard work of dedicated employees but also because it backs companies into a corner where they can’t admit to failure and, therefore, can’t take risks. It inhibits engagement and the sense of a shared journey where people actually want you to succeed. When companies position their transition plans as fixed corporate strategies—independent of the human striving, ambition and the care to make them happen—they lose the permission to fail.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon epitomizes the open approach, honestly sharing the emotional side of Walmart’s sustainability journey to become a “regenerative company,” from missteps to progress, while always setting its sights on even more ambitious goals. If the strategy is only numbers, you will only be judged by the numbers — and the harsh reality of this experiment is that, in some years, the numbers may go the wrong way. Companies that admit to being human, though, might just be judged as one.
“Because it’s right” is no longer sufficient
We believe in change-makers, not change
People want to see change, but credibility beats capability every time. In a global study on the energy industry, we found that the traits most related to driving connection were human traits rather than capability traits. Honest, helpful, trustworthy and caring outrank perceptions of being innovative, visionary or expert in building connection. People need to believe in you, before they care about what you can achieve.
Climate change has been a reality for decades, and many large companies have profited directly or indirectly from the activities driving it. Within this context, the idea that companies have had a moral awakening about the right thing to do is just not credible. Companies need to think harder to find their “why,” and to define a credible role for them to play.
Every company needs to work out their own authentic “why.” From our experience we’ve seen three archetypes emerging: the Pioneer, the Partner, and the Pragmatist.
- Why I care: I am obsessed with innovation, and the transition to net zero is the biggest, most exciting innovation challenge out there.
- How I tell my story: It’s all about my vision for the future and leading the transformation. My story centers on this vision, and credibility is built by showcasing innovation leadership today. My tone is heroic, inspiring, excited.
- Example: Tesla’s purpose isn’t to sell electric cars; it’s to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. This vision is what motivates Tesla employees and enables them to stretch into solar, batteries and beyond.
- Why I care: My business is about people, and climate change is the single greatest threat to people — we need to do everything we can to protect them.
- How I tell my story: It’s all about the human impact of climate change. My story centers on the potential risk to people, and a call to action for everyone to come together to make change. My tone is caring, concerned, collaborative.
- Example: IKEA’s purpose is to create a better everyday life for the many people. This democratic ideal underpins IKEA’s sustainability strategy and determination to make all choices affordable and sustainable (as the company did for LEDs in 2015).
- Why I care: I believe that climate change is the biggest disruptor of our generation, and only those that stay ahead can survive.
- How I tell my story: It’s all about transformation and the potential it unlocks. My story centers on proactive moves for the business to get ahead of change, and why we are uniquely placed to drive and navigate it. My tone is pragmatic, smart, driven.
- Example: Dyson doesn’t talk about “sustainability,” they talk about “lean engineering.” For Dyson, innovation has always been about doing more with less. Climate change has simply changed what was good business into a moral imperative.
Even if large-scale change isn’t possible as quickly as customers would want, companies must show meaningful commitment and progress through breakthrough “beacon” offerings.
Telling a good story isn’t enough
Telling a sustainability story which explains your “why” is a good start — customers will begin to see your humanity, believe your intentions and value your vision. But we must not forget our human biases — people care about their personal carbon footprint. To work with these biases, companies need to demonstrate real change today.
For many companies, the idea of demonstrating short-term change is intimidating. Many sustainability initiatives will take years to create significant impact at scale. It’s okay to acknowledge the challenge and show the struggle along the way, but it’s not okay to sit still. Companies that embrace the humanity of the journey, even acknowledging setbacks, are seen as true sustainability leaders. Octopus Energy’s heat pump R&D center offers a great example by showcasing the challenges, as well as the wins, as it drives heat pump installation across the UK.
Make sustainable products a ‘beacon,’ not just an option
Case Study: Net-zero steel
Nucor, the world’s largest recycled-steel producer, has a strong claim to being a piece in the puzzle of solving climate change. In an industry with stubbornly high emissions, Nucor today creates steel with 60-70% less scope 1-3 emissions. Unfortunately, customers, governments and the general public often paint all steel with the same brush. To counter this perception, Nucor needed a beacon to exemplify their climate leadership. So, Nucor worked with General Motors (a key customer) to launch Econiq, the world’s first net zero steel at scale. Critically, however, the company didn’t just launch a product; rather, they combined the product with an overarching narrative highlighting the potential of recycled steel to transform the world — with Econiq painting a vision for what’s possible.
Experimentation doesn’t mean changing everything in one go. Companies need to create innovative sustainable products, but they will also need to continue offering existing, less sustainable products for a period. How do you do this without seeming uncommitted, or undermining the rest of your portfolio?
Many companies simply offer green as an “option”, and let the customer choose. This shifts the onus of sustainable choice onto individuals, undermining the credibility of the “option” and unintentionally reinforcing perceptions that the company doesn’t really care about sustainability enough to drive more significant change.
Instead of “either or” options, companies should build sustainable “beacons” – hero products that tie into your overarching sustainability story and demonstrate your commitment to transition and exemplify your vision. This implies actively promoting and leading with these products, defining a timeframe to sunset less sustainable options, and setting a vision where every product in your portfolio will meet this sustainability criteria and more.
Make it personal. Make it meaningful.
No single entity — whether government, company or individual — can tackle climate change alone. Making a meaningful difference requires us to work together to achieve impact at scale.
To work together, we need to reconnect. To get started, we propose three steps:
Start with their “why,” not your “who”
Recognize that caring about climate change isn’t an isolated mindset. People care for a reason; and to build a connection, you must understand that reason, respect it and build a story to align with it.
Get serious about your own “why”
Bring some personality into your sustainability story. Transition requires trust, and people will only trust companies if they understand their motivation. Question your motivation, be honest about it, and make it central to your sustainability narrative.
Create a beacon to bring your “why” to life
Telling a good story isn’t enough. Companies need to show how they are helping customers make a difference, today. By creating “beacon” propositions, which showcase a sustainability vision, companies can demonstrate that they are committed to change.
The responsibility of building this connection falls on companies, but so does the opportunity. Those who take a lead will stand out, not just as a company, but as a collective of like-minded people solving the greatest challenge of our age.
Sometimes it’s hard to love companies, but it’s hard not to love a human on a mission.
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Illustrations by Luba Lukova
Design by Bethany Lesko, Jung Kwon, Amal Baidas, Eva Hoffman
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