This article originally appeared on BusinessGreen.
“The eyes of all future generations are upon you,” warned Greta Thunberg at the UN climate summit last year.
It is one of many powerful statements given by the 17-year-old Swedish student who went from solo school striker in Stockholm to the voice of her generation in less than two years.
At the dawn of this new decade, she’s the face of a bubbling “youth fury”—one that inspired the single biggest climate demonstration in history last September, with six million people taking to the streets across 150 countries.
A resounding cry that time is up, and those who turn a blind eye will be held forever accountable.
It’s a fast-moving and emotionally charged conversation demanding an equally rapid response—not only from the politicians and policymakers in its firing line but from brands and corporations, too.
After all, Thunberg’s loyal following serves as a sizeable reminder that eco-consciousness now sits atop the Gen Z agenda. For brands to stay competitive and secure their future, green initiatives are no longer just a nice-to-have—they’re a table stake.
Plastics and packaging, overconsumption and waste. What damage will be caused? Where is the greener alternative? How can we all do better? Such concerns have become the moral dilemma and modus operandi of the modern-day consumer.
So, how can businesses rise to Thunberg’s challenge and do better business?
Here are three things brands can learn from the ‘Greta effect’:
1. Be purposeful
Brands have always needed a compelling purpose.
But in the wake of the climate emergency, truly defining this purpose and aligning it to wider environmental or social commitments will be more pivotal than ever before.
Those sitting on the fence or failing to respond will risk forgoing the loyalty and commitment enjoyed by their more environmentally conscious counterparts.
From Patagonia and Ikea to Nike and LEGO, the biggest and best global names continue to build deeper connections and positive brand sentiment through more meaningful and sustainable initiatives—all inextricably linked to the vision and purpose of their brand.
And don’t forget: it’s not just customers who are yearning for that raison d’être. Future employees will need to feel inspired, too.
A recent talent study by Siegel+Gale showed graduates rank oil and gas companies as the least attractive prospective employer available to them, due to their damaging effect on the planet. Green energy and renewables, meanwhile, soared to the top five.
2. Be proactive
“Why should we argue about who or what needs to change first,” Thunberg recently asked the Guardian. “Why not take the leading role?”
With scrutiny and potential backlash from consumers seemingly just around the corner, more and more brands will need to be proactive and demonstrate true leadership: acknowledging challenges and outlining ambitious goals to truly become that necessary change. Even if it means making some sacrifices.
Take Unilever, who last year vowed to sell off any brand within its portfolio that has a detrimental effect on the planet. “Principles are only principles if they cost you something,” said chief executive Alan Jope at the time.
It’s this type of urgent action that other large-scale brands will need to exemplify.
The quicker the action and the more impactful the strategy, the bigger the lasting impression. There is power and significance in first-mover advantage. One need only look at the headlines Sainsbury’s made across the UK last year for being the first supermarket to remove plastic bags from all fresh fruit, vegetable and bakery goods.
3. Be authentic
From traversing the Atlantic in a boat to convincing her parents to refuse air travel, Thunberg’s meteoric rise is largely attributed to one thing: her authenticity.
Brands, in turn, have to follow suit. Being purposeful and proactive will amount to nothing if it’s missing a foundation of credibility.
In a sea of political divisiveness and ethical concern, consumers are looking for true and transparent organisations who talk the talk and walk the walk. The moral accountability and responsibility now placed on brands demands that they get real.
After all, purpose-washing fools no one. The ever-scrutinising Gen Z will detect shallow or contradictory practices in a millisecond.
One could argue Pepsi was acting with haste on the issue of social justice when they commissioned their 2017 Live for Now campaign. Need we all be reminded how that turned out?
Instead, set goals and show tangible change.
We saw Burberry transition from widespread controversy around the burning of waste product to an ambitious, industry-leading sustainability strategy—one that resulted in them being named the most sustainable luxury brand in the world.
The proof was in the pudding.
Moving forward, as the discussion gets louder and the debate no doubt intensifies, the brands who stick to these simple goals will most effectively cut through the noise.
After all, Thunberg herself is nothing if not authentic, purposeful and proactive. Her resonance and impact boil down to the passion and simplicity of her message that encapsulates these things—telling us that urgent action is needed, and we all have a part to play.
Perhaps it’s time to listen.