Content Creation in Crisis Culture

At a meeting of the ANA's Content Marketing Committee in January of 2022, Etienne White of Sustainable Brands considered how companies can promote sustainability during the many crises currently facing society. She began by highlighting emerging trends in society and culture, observing that we're seeing:

  • Extreme weather conditions because of climate change
  • A loss of social cohesion as we navigate a reckoning with racial justice 400 years in the making
  • An increased focus on sustainability by companies, catalyzed, in part, by the pandemic

White went on to draw attention to several emerging and relevant trends in the business context, including:

  • The rise in investor and employee activism
  • A surge in ESG investment by companies
  • A consensus among CEOs that fighting climate change will create jobs
  • The emergence of climate justice lawsuits, such as one aiming to hold Big Oil accountable for climate change
  • The formation of large industry coalitions on behalf of sustainability (e.g., the U.S. Plastics Pact)

Action Steps

White suggested numerous action steps that companies can take to promote sustainability in this high-stakes environment.

  • Create a pull toward sustainability instead of pushing it on people: Avoid guilt-tripping your audience. Conduct a discovery process to identify where the things the world needs, the things people want, and the things your organization can uniquely offer all overlap. Doing this before going to market will allow you to adopt an approach that will forestall allegations of purpose-washing. Make sure your content approaches align with this strategy.
  • Offer solutions rather than restating the challenge: Eschew messages of "doom and gloom." Show what simple changes people can adopt to make a big difference.
  • Move from advocacy to action: Focus on changing behaviors, not just on changing minds (e.g., promote the action of recycling bottles or granola bar wrappers). Audiences are hungry for practical demonstrations of positive behaviors.
  • Don't let your own good work go unnoticed: At the same time as you are promoting positive behavior on the part of your audience, let them know the positive steps you are taking on behalf of the same causes.

Q&A with Etienne White, VP, Brands for Good at Sustainable Brands

Q. How does a brand that has not historically embraced sustainability as a business driver get started with moving in that direction?

A. The first thing brands in that position have to do is undertake an honest assessment of their own house. Also, before you go out with any messaging you need to have clear commitments to be getting that house in order.

What I would caution against, though, is what I would call "green hush." You have greenwashing at one end of the spectrum, which is making unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims about what you're up to and then all the way at the other end of the spectrum is "green hush," which is companies that say, "Oh, no we can't tell anyone about anything we're doing until it's all done." This fails to recognize that this work is never going to be all done — those goalposts are going to keep moving. Sustainability is very much a journey without a clear destination.

Q. How do you build sustainability culture internally at a large organization so it's not just greenwashing and the internal culture matches the external brand?

A. I think of Procter & Gamble and the climate leadership that they have demonstrated over a decade now and how they talk about sustainability truly being embedded through the organization. The approach that they took was to make sure that it is built in, and not bolt on. It needs to be from the C-suite. You also need a board that's on board, embedding sustainability much further up.

That also involves making sure that research and development is done through the lens of sustainability, because sustainability can't be just seen as something we should do because there's no consumers on a dead planet.

So, I think the more embedded in your business that gets, not only are you mitigating against claims of greenwashing, but actually you're setting yourself up for success.


"Content Creation in Crisis Culture." Etienne White, VP, Brands for Good at Sustainable Brands. ANA Content Marketing Committee Meeting, 1/21/22.

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