Turned off by green branding, turned on by green brands
Sustainability | 15/03/2024

Turned off by green branding, turned on by green brands

Emily Rule

There is a lot of pressure on brands to demonstrate sustainability-related progress. Whether we like it or not, the relationship between brand appeal and a brand’s sustainability transition plans, is deepening. Evidence of this type of sustainability-driven preference change is clear (at varying degrees) across categories, from electricity to entertainment.

As sustainability becomes a priority for more people, we are seeing two forms of brand behaviour emerging: surface-level sustainability branding and genuine sustainability brand commitments. Despite their face-value similarities, these two forms of behaviour garner very different responses from customers and regulators alike.

Surface-level sustainability branding is designed purely for the public eye and exists on the surface of a brand’s identity. In effect, it lives and dies in the form of marketing and never affects the broader business.

Genuine sustainability brand commitments, on the other hand, are evidenced when sustainability action becomes a thread that runs, unmistakably through the entire business and its ethos: from the depths of strategy and operations, all the way up to marketing.

As customers and investors become more savvy about the differences between sustainability branding vs. sustainability brand action, pursuing surface-level sustainability branding is one of the worst mistakes a brand can make.

In fact, in a survey conducted by Stonehaven in January 2024 (in the height of a cost of living crisis), we found that when a brand embarks on surface-level branding, but fails to make the necessary changes to the internal workings of the business, 51% say that they would be turned off by the brand completely. While only 15% say that this would not make an impact on their brand preference.

Similarly, when brands demonstrate a genuine change in behaviour as part of an authentic and transparent sustainability transition programme, they are rewarded greatly. 47% of people say that they would consider switching into a brand that they have not tried before, for making and sticking to genuine sustainability commitments.

Emily Rule is Stonehaven's Creative Strategy Director. Please contact us to find out more about the issues discussed in this article. 

Case studies

Evidence suggests that genuine sustainability brand commitments coupled with a clear and deliberate transition plan, has the power to grow market share in the short term and future-proof customer loyalty. When looking at it through this lens, could not making and stick to its sustainability commitments be the biggest gamble a brand can make these days? To illustrate the impact of surface-level sustainability branding vs. genuine sustainability brand commitments, we’ve collected a few recent comparative examples.

The important thing to note is in all of these instances, the brands’ intentions would have been good, but in the sustainability branding cases the promises are not backed up by significant action.


Brands that have turned consumers off with sustainability branding



Brewdog’s claim that customers will ‘buy one get one tree' weren't followed through, and were accompanied by misleading promotional materials. Brewdog’s sustainability branding added to the public frustrated and fuelled the creation of an investigative documentary into the corporate culture and strategy of Brewdog, that unearthed even more dirt on the brand.



Lorde naming her album Solar Power because it sounded cool without making any commitment or sacrifice in favour of climate action. Rather than focusing on the music itself, Lorde was forced to redirect attention away from her mistaken identity as a climate activist.



H&M had been using vague labels like "Conscious" and "Made from Recycled Materials" to suggest they are more sustainable than their conventional counterparts. H&M were sued for misleading sustainability marketing, and thousands of customers boycotted the brand.



Ryanair claimed it was the lowest emissions airline. This didn't take into account the airline's overall emissions or its contribution to the growth of air travel, a major source of greenhouse gases. Advertising was banned by the ASA and RyanAir was shamed for its misleading branding.


Brands that have turned consumers on by being genuine sustainable brands



Diageo signed a partnership that could replace up to 95% of bar and pub bottles. A positive response from all venues involved in the pilot programme, which has confirmed the commercial viability of the reusable packaging. On top of this, the ecoTOTEs are designed to be used up to 150 times and are expected to eliminate the use of up to 1,000 glass bottles over their lifespan, ultimately creating a cost saving, carbon saving and reputational benefit for the brand.



During their World Tour, Coldplay did a lot to reduce their carbon footprint. From kinetic dance floors to 5 million new trees planted and 100% renewable energy to power their concerts. They have even refused to tour in previous years because of the predicted footprint. Fans and experts are praising Coldplay for their efforts and encouraging them to keep moving in the right direction.



Patagonia Purpose Trust and the Holdfast Collective was launched with the transparent commitment that every dollar that is not reinvested back into Patagonia will be distributed as dividends to protect the planet. Patagonia became the most talked about and admired brand almost instantaneously after the announcement, among business leaders, in the media and on social media.



Trainline gave customers an opportunity to choose lower emissions per journey with its pledge a journey initative. Trainline is turning sustainability into their competitive advantage, stealing share from planes, and cars all over the UK.


The world of the sustainable transition can be daunting, but getting it right is a huge turn on for customers and reaps great rewards. And it has the power to uplift your reputation, grow market share, and inspire loyalty (all of which are invaluable in the current climate).

If you’re unsure about how to translate your sustainability ambition into genuine sustainable brand action, a good place to start is this short, actionable article on how to thrive through a sustainable transition by Alex Bunting, Head of Strategy at Robertsbridge.

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