As urban millennials and self-proclaimed nature geeks, we look for brands that reflect who we are. Where we’ve been. What we care about.
Brands are catching on — particularly when it comes to environmental responsibility. From Nature Valley granola bars to Seventh Generation cleaning products, corporations are leaning into our generation’s collective call for corporate sustainability, through both meaningful action and authentic brand storytelling.
But as scholars and critics have noted, there’s more to being a sustainable brand than adding a recycling symbol to your packaging. We’ve noticed two brands that go beyond greenwashing — with very different approaches.
In April 2019, Everlane, a clothing brand known for its approach of “radical transparency,” teamed up with The New York Times to launch a microsite about fact-based climate reporting. The site offers a series of simple climate talking points linked to the New York Times reporting. Then, it asks the reader to purchase a New York Times-branded Everlane sweatshirt. Proceeds from the clothes support New York Times subscriptions for public schools.
With this activation, The New York Times and Everlane got some big things right. But they also missed the mark in a few key ways.
Throughout the site, the two brands balance their respective voices, seamlessly linking The New York Times’ iconic “Truth” campaign to frank, assertive language from Everlane. The microsite tells a story: table stakes for good brand activism. It’s an unexpected collaboration, but one that makes sense for both brands: one long-committed to fact-based reporting, and the other focused on sustainable, ethical production.
The microsite feels right for its customers. The messages arm Everlane’s educated, urban shoppers with talking points for coffee dates and Thanksgiving dinners. The sweatshirts are a uniform for sustainability virtue-signaling. And all of that’s important — because, without a compelling reason for a consumer to engage, an activation can’t make an impact.
But there’s a disconnect. At the very top of the page, a rotating tagline for The New York Times asserts: “Truth. It affects us all. How we waste. What we buy.” Then, at the bottom, you face a link to buy a $50 sweatshirt.
Suddenly, the message feels hollow. After all, isn’t needless consumption part of the problem?
If “truth inspires action,” as the site reminds us, how does the action Everlane and The New York Times want their readers to take further the cause they’re highlighting? The short answer: it doesn’t.
In comparison, consider Patagonia: a poster child for authentic environmental stewardship and brand storytelling. Sustainability is core to their purpose, their promise and their product. Their purpose statement, “We’re in business to save our home planet,” summarizes their commitment to sustainability and good business.
Their marketing promises authenticity by giving people new ways to connect with the brand while tangibly delivering on its mission. Notably, Patagonia does not want you to buy excess product – they’d rather customers reuse, resell and share. By accepting trade-in “Worn Wear,” repairing used products in their stores and ultimately extending the life of the products they sell, they send a powerful message about their commitment to sustainability. The classic “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign articulated this message succinctly.
And while the gear they do sell is sustainable (read: recycled, durable and efficiently produced), their product is bigger than trendy puffers and corporate vests. By offering its customers tangible ways to connect with real causes through its Patagonia Action Works platform, the company creates an opportunity to be part of a lifestyle and community committed to preserving the outdoors, no matter where the consumer actually lives. Calls-to-action across the experience emphasizes pledge-signing, event-going and petition-signing, not just buying.
Tying language to action allows Patagonia to truly own their position as an advocate for our planet. Whether you’re an adventurer or not, the approach resonates – because it’s real.
Brands win customer loyalty when their messaging—their brand storytelling—and experience work together seamlessly. One without the other is either an empty promise or a missed opportunity. Everlane and The New York Times remind us that it’s not enough to have a call-to-action. That action has to deliver on the story you’re sharing.
With a two-pronged approach, Patagonia both talks the talk and walks the walk. We applaud them for their sustained commitment to sustainability that resonates with their customers.