Selling a greener future

Creative campaigns are increasingly used by environmental groups to promote a greener way of life – but are bandwagon-jumping brands diluting the message? Aimée McLaughlin speaks to Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion and Mother about the role of advertising in sustainability

In 1971, a small group of eco-minded individuals from Vancouver set sail in an old fishing boat called The Greenpeace to Amchitka Island off the coast of Alaska, in order to try to stop a US nuclear weapons test. Almost five decades on, Greenpeace is one of the most famous environmental organisations in the world, with a presence in more than 40 countries, and has been behind countless peaceful direct actions that have helped protect our planet and promote a greener future.

As Greenpeace’s movement has gathered momentum over the years, so too has its approach to communicating its message. The organisation is now well known for its bold campaigns and headline-grabbing stunts that directly criticise companies such as BP and Coca-Cola, as well as those in positions of power more generally, such as in its recent Creature Comforts-inspired film created by Aardman, which coincided with its campaign for a new Global Ocean Treaty to be considered at this year’s UN summit.

Greenpeace’s most high-profile creative campaign to date came in the form of its 2018 film Rang-tan, an animation that addressed the destruction of rainforests by palm oil growers, and the devastating effect this has on endangered orangutans in particular. Led by agency Mother, the film was later reworked by supermarket chain Iceland as its surprise Christmas ad, marking its decision to remove palm oil from its own-label products. The film subsequently went viral, quickly racking up over 80 million views online.

Top and Above: Created by Mother, Greenpeace’s 2018 film Rang-tan highlighted the threat that palm oil poses to rainforests and endangered orangutans in particular. The film was later reworked by supermarket Iceland for its Christmas ad

Despite being banned by Clearcast for breaching political advertising rules, Rang-tan also made a real-world impact, with more than 1.2 million people signing Greenpeace’s palm oil petition. “In less than a year, palm oil went from being an obscure ingredient listed on the back of about 50% of supermarket packaged goods, to something millions of people felt so strongly about they signed petitions to show they wanted those supermarket ingredients to change,” says Mother ECD Hermeti Balarin.

“The biggest impact will be felt because of actions upstream. Wilmar, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, has now committed to remove any products that result in virgin rainforest deforestation from its supply chain. This was undoubtedly driven by consumer pressure; when you see searches for palm oil going up 10,000% in a year, you know people are interested,” he adds.

For Greenpeace’s executive director, John Sauven, who has worked at the organisation since the early 90s, the rise of social media in particular has been a game-changer when it comes to its approach to communications. “If you’re dependent on getting your story out in a traditional newspaper, it’s up to the editor of the newspaper whether your story gets covered or not. But of course, now with social media, we have millions of followers, we have millions of activists, and the ability to produce films and reach numbers that are comparable to newspapers,” he says.