Brazil’s sustainability tipping point – three lessons for success from the west

Published in Guardian Sustainable Business when I returned from Brazil in May 2014.

Image source: Alamy

In terms of mainstreaming sustainability, Brazil looks great on paper. GlobeScan report a high level of advocacy, social change has mainstream appeal and Brazilian businesses are spending more than countries such as the UK, Germany and Australia on sustainability. You’d be forgiven for thinking the outlook was rosy.

However, overpromising, greenwash and lack of leadership or accountability are creating a tipping point. And while Brazil’s extreme income inequality substantially differentiates it from other countries, learnings from elsewhere can be used to explore trends in attitude change. As traditional optimism levels plummet, there’s a risk that the current path could take Brazil to the apathy and cynicism seen in the UK and US. Whereas looking at Sweden and Germany, for example, the next stage could be consumer advocacy and normalisation of sustainable behaviours.

How the conversation develops depends on government and business leadership, truthful marketing and creation of tangible change. There are three key ingredients for success.

1. Tell better stories:

In Brazil, sustainability often exists in the world of philanthropy, showmanship and “feelgood” exercises, yet the story sustainability departments, change-makers and their supporting agencies should be building is around sustainability delivering as business driver, creating new market opportunities and strengthening investor confidence. Opportunities should be pitched as “my world” rather than “the world”, something sustainability jargon and visuals of the earth will never do.

This also extends to external communications. Advertising and PR have a powerful role in creating social norms. Brazil has the Conar advertising code, but the social norms and the glorification of consumption need a rethink. One Brazilian told me they learned how to consume from the US. While evidence suggests that millenials in the US are now entering post-consumerism, a look at the Funk movement (a music style, which heavily endorses materiality) shows that this attitude has been exported.

Projects such as The International Exchange, which imports people from international communications agencies to work on NGO projects, and Indi.us, a video production agency which creates mainstream stories around sustainability, are helping, but a better advertising code and thought leadership by mainstream agencies are needed, to prevent the kind of backlash we’ve seen in the UK.

2. Flip the conversation from problem to solution:

Ongoing protests and bad sentiment about the political situation and World Cup mean that conversations around change often focus on what is wrong rather than how to fix it. People and brands need to think of themselves as problem solvers to circumvent lack of leadership from the government. Apps such as Colab are trying to do this, by encouraging users to submit relevant issues and problems to their Prefeitura (local council), but if their reports are ignored, the problem is compounded. Businesses should use this kind of data to identify behaviour change opportunities or fix issues that are important to their brand and the people of Brazil.

This is starting to happen. NBS’s Rio+Rio, connects favela communities with brands, identifying mutually beneficial opportunities, while Imagina na Copa campaigns to use the World Cup to create a positive shift in attitude by asking members to submit one thing they will do until then to make Brazil a better place. These are great examples, but need to be scaled up to create mainstream change.

A sense of momentum also needs to be created through knowledge sharing networks. Creative workspaces like Rio’s Goma are doing this on a local scale and online platforms like Como Podemos link people and initiatives with others who have similar aims. However, Brazil lacks less formal forums that empower the lower classes, make use of its love of social media, highly relationship-based culture and mainstream interest in social change.

3. Create tangible change:
Businesses and the government lack credibility due to making promises that they struggle to, or have no intention of, delivering. For a country that spends so much on reporting, this seems counterintuitive. Companies should be learning from the likes of Itau Bank, which is embedding sustainability into its corporate strategy. Companies that have the Sistema B certification also have sustainable practices as part of their make up, helping to guide those that want to start the journey.

However, corporate level improvements won’t convince people that change is actually happening. We know from the UK and US that people don’t believe their small actions amount to anything and feel that brands and the government are not changing their behaviour. Businesses can capitalise on their reporting spend by creating consumer-facing stories and initiatives that solve a real brand and consumer issue (rather than exploiting favela communities with short term projects that look good on the international stage), and celebrate the aggregated impact of the effort.

Brazil presents great opportunities. The desire for social and, to some extent environmental, change is mainstream. The chance to build brand value through problem solving is there. Yet, so is the danger of repeating the mistakes of the west, creating apathy through overpriced products, sustainability ghettoisation and false promises. Like it or not, business has a chance to lead government and consumers into a new era, but this opportunity won’t last forever.

On the buses: supermodels and hyperbole

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Brazil is in trouble.

And not the kind of trouble the foreign press would like to think. You’d think we were all under siege over here, afraid of riots, muggings and vandalism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, we are careful of our stuff and ourselves, yes things get stolen, yes, people get hurt, but it is not the all out warfare that is projected in the foreign media. It’s not all the manufactured tranquil of Zona Sul either, but that’s another blog.

In my opinion, Brazil is under threat from the car and from marketers and businesses selling outdated aspirations. (I know it sounds worthy, but stick with me here).

There was a bus strike in Rio yesterday. For anyone who’s never caught a bus here, it’s a frustrating and death defying experience. First you have to work out where you catch your bus (there will be no clues or information on the bus stops), wait between 30 minutes and 60 seconds, negotiate a cumbersome turnstile, operated by people who never have change, then spend around 45 minutes desperately clinging on to whatever isn’t nailed down as the bus driver re-enacts scenes from ‘Speed’. It’s not for the faint hearted. In fact, part of being a true ‘Carioca’ is, in fact, the ability to moan with great passion about bus drivers, traffic and transport.

It wasn’t great, we were lucky enough to borrow a car and be able to afford taxis. But not everyone can do that. In fact, people got very frustrated with the fact that their main method of transport was inaccessible, meaning they couldn’t get to work, care for their families etc. Some of these people vandalised buses, many of them switched to their cars and contributed to awful traffic conditions today too. Most of you who live in London are probably thinking ‘Yeah, well you should have been here for the Tube strike’ but this is a bigger problem than you might think. You will still get on your train/tube/bus to go to work next week (cursing maybe, but you’ll do it) and you’ll still do it five years from now (unless you move to Bath, Somerset, or Florida, none of which have much of a public transport system to speak of). But, judging by the evidence we see today, Brazilians won’t if they can help it…. and there are a lot more of them than there are of you.

According to CEBEDS, most of Brazilian’s rising middle class dream of owning a car. This was true for Gen X in the States, a car represented freedom and the ability to travel and connect with others. However, millennials in the States and Europe have largely rejected this consumption dream, preferring to stay connected through their Smartphones. As Jonah Hill observes in the hilariously satirical ’21 Jump Street’: Liking comic books is popular, environmental awareness, being tolerant. If I was just born ten years later, I would have been the coolest person ever!” This can’t happen in Rio, the infrastructure simply isn’t there. Traffic congestion now obstructs over 130 km (81 miles) of the city and in 2012 represented a loss of Us$14 billion, according to a survey by FIRJAN. And don’t get me started on the asthma inducing air quality. Traffic is strangling Brazil’s cities and causing billions of Reais in losses.

Driving itself is a pleasurable experience and owning a car is necessary and desirable for lots of people, it’s just that if everyone owns one and drives it at the same time in a place that can’t cope, there becomes a problem. Who’s to blame? Advertising and the media can take some of it. We know we get signals on how to behave from those around us, just as we do from advertising and the media (it’s called ‘peripheral processing’). To pick up magazines, or watch the television, you’d think that everyone in Brazil was rich, white and owned a car. In a place where people are less cynical towards brands, marketers and the media have a potentially enormous impact on the consumption patterns of the populace. The ‘Rolezinho’ movement want their piece of the pie and we don’t seem to have learned anything from things like the London Riots. Coupled with the unreliability of the public transport system, no wonder people dream of having a car.

Rant over, but I do think Brazil is in need of some better advertising guidelines and some good behaviour change campaigns (more on how to do that here). New road building, extensions to the Metro, bus lanes and things like the ‘Bilhete Unico’, (a time rather than trip based Oyster card type system) or apps like ‘Moovit’ have made things better, but change needs to go further to reverse the trend towards car ownership.

In his TED Talk, Sweat the Small Stuff, the polemic Rory Sutherland asks:

“Why is it necessary to spend six billion pounds speeding up the Eurostar train when, for a about 10 percent of that money, you could have top supermodels, male and female, serving free Chateau Petrus to all the passengers for the entire duration of the journey? You’d still have 5 billion left in change, and people would ask for the trains to be slowed down.”

I’m not necessarily suggesting we get zunga wearing hotties to fan us on buses (not the ‘necessarily’ in that sentence), but even a bit of bus driver training, regular fleet servicing and an end to the tyranny of  bus turnstiles isn’t going to change the idea of the ‘car as a status symbol’. Maybe glamourising car sharing is the answer, or having luxury priority buses (these already exist, but I would want a little more luxury for RS$15 a trip), or installing phone chargers and entertainment systems on some, or up playing the fact you can stay connected through mobile devices. I don’t know, but people would, if we asked them (my survey of Gringos and housemates doesn’t count) and, judging by the statistics, it’s important we do.

*Ahem, thanks. Climbs down off soap box*

Behavior change: the epic adventure

Our five point framework for behavior change joy
Our five point framework for behavior change joy

Well, not quite, but being involved has been epic. I helped write and launch the first practical behavior change framework for any emerging economy this week at Sustainable Brands 2014 in Rio. It’s been put together by myself, Pablo Barros and Fatima Cardoso of Eight Sustainability Platform with input from partners like Futerra and is a five point process for creating behavior change that’s tailored for Brazil.

Brazil is at a critical time in terms of attitudes to sustainability (both social and environmental). Although Brazil has the highest number of ‘Advocates’ and ‘Aspirational’ consumers (who are potential supporters of sustainable initiatives), there is a big gap between intention and action. Beautiful, emotional mainstream marketing and behavior change campaigns exist (such as Sport Club do Recife’s ‘Immortal Fans‘ campaign), but many still fall into the trap of being boring, rational or not based on consumer insight. The timing is critical as progress on social and environmental issues needs to be demonstrated to make the next stage of consumer awareness normalisation (such as in Scandinavia) rather than cynicism and apathy (such as in the UK or USA).

The framework draws from learnings and methodologies from the US and UK and applies them to the Brazilian consumer and context. It is intended to help brands and governments create campaigns to close this gap. I was lucky enough to be involved in writing it and hope you enjoy. Feel free to comment, heckle or ask questions. There’s a ‘contact me’ box on the ‘Hire me’ section of the site.

Download the report here.

Notes on arriving in the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’

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Rio truly is a cidade maravilhosa: a vast sprawling metropolis of every type of building imaginable clinging to dramatic topography. Beaches straight from picture postcards are topped by dizzying rocks and peaks; smart marble fronted apartment blocks overlooked by thrown together favela buildings. Decaying colonial grandeur, riotous colours, formica and grime, Rio’s reputation as a city of contrast manifests itself visually as well as culturally.

Botafogo beach has perhaps the most beautiful view: a vista over the yacht club, historic Urca and the famed Sugarloaf, all topped off with stunning white sand and blue sea. On the first day, I head there, and lie on a practically deserted beach feeling rather smug (and wondering where the rest of Rio’s 6.3 million inhabitants are). It turns out that this stunning beach, this picture postcard view, is the most polluted beach in the city.

For the first month I am overwhelmed: lost, shy and often frustrated. With horror stories ringing in my head, I walk nowhere after dark and rarely use my smartphone in public. Without basic knowledge about which apps to use, no local knowledge and little sense of direction, I explore the city badly, feeling twinges of homesickness for London: a city I could navigate blindfolded. Then there are the cultural differences: Rio is a city of approximations, a journey may take 10 minutes or an hour depending on traffic, your change will always be rounded up or down and a tolerance level of 30 minutes surrounds any arrival or departure.

Perhaps the most striking thing is the language barrier: prior to arriving, I had been learning Portuguese for about a year, (with a long suffering tutor). This, (coupled with my awful Spanish) in theory should have allowed me to communicate at least enough to procure a taxi and coffee. Sadly, nothing can prepare one for the Carioca accent: a fast lilting singsong that bears little resemblance to the clipped Paulista accent I’ve been learning from. Few people speak English and I am dumb, unable to speak nor understand, left cursing my lack of preparation.

Conversations are impossible, people speed up and by the time my brain has caught up with what I think might have been said, it has moved on. I find the only time I can join in is when the conversation is directly about me or I am directly controlling it (a very self serving and surprisingly nerve racking task). For someone as talkative as me, this is both torturous and infuriating. As someone who both ‘loves words, and the possibilities of words’ (as Steinbeck put it) it’s now that I start to really appreciate the power of language. For it’s one thing to be able to talk about what you are doing now, tomorrow or last week and a very different one to be able to talk about what you think, believe and feel. As I struggle with the transactional, it seems like a big ask to ever be able to speak this complex language properly. Yet for reasons of sanity, self expression and pride, it must be done.

It’s worth it though, this great and flawed city: I have never seen, nor will see again, anything to beat a sunrise or set over Ipanema beach, or the view from Cristo Redentor. The charm, passion and sheer eccentricity of the inhabitants goes a long way towards taking the edge off even the long waits, creaking infrastructure and mind boggling bureaucracy.

So there you have it after five months of near silence. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer awesomeness of Rio de Janeiro. The challenges, contrasts and complexities of everyday life are like a language you need to understand before you can even begin to open your mouth. Shrouded in confusion and written in a strange alphabet, these realities take time to truly understand but are all the sweeter for the struggle. I am finally starting to be able to work with, instead of against it.

One person I meet shares a love of Charles Bukowski. We try and talk about why in English and I can see he is struggling to express himself, so we switch to Portuguese and I don’t understand. The group joins in and the conversation slips away from me, borne off in a cloud of ‘gíria’, unmastered tenses and one too many bottles of beer. But it’s no longer an issue, simply an indication of the road that still lies ahead.