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