How Brands Can Transform Eco-Anxiety into Eco-Optimism

Trends / Sustainability
Sandra Michalska & Carolina Sampaio Lechner
Apr 17, 2023
Eco‑anxiety is on the rise. Studies are increasingly showing that climate change is negatively impacting mental health1 — so much so, that a new emotion has been defined. Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the phrase solastalgia, a mixture of the words ‘solace’ and ‘nostalgia’ to describe the feelings of distress associated with environmental change close to home, a phenomenon that has been observed from communities in Ghana, Mexico to the United States that have been affected by climate catastrophes.2
Severe flooding in Pakistan
Dadu, Sindh, Pakistan ‑ 11 September 2022
Firefighters drink water and recover during an operation to stop a wildfire
Sameiro, Portugal ‑ 10 August 2022
Hurricane Ian Slams Into West Coast Of Florida
Bonita Springs, FL, United States ‑ 29 September 2022
Some of the most enduring news visuals captured by Getty Images photographers and videographers have been heart‑breaking events sparked by our climate crisis. Between heat waves, water scarcity and biodiversity loss, Getty Images VisualGPS research3 shows that 79% of people feel not enough is being done immediately to reduce the effects of climate change. Contributing to eco‑anxiety is a lack of trust in governments and brands. In fact, 66% of people surveyed say governments should be doing more to set pro‑climate policies,4 while 68% distrust brands’ claims they are abiding by ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) standards.5 If these statistics are any indication, the lack of immediate, tangible climate action has contributed towards this anxiety and scepticism.

However, most agree that people can’t expect the world to get better if they aren’t personally doing something to make that happen and see collective responsibility falling on brands, governments and individuals.6 From eco‑activism to ethical workplace engagement, new social movements announce an important shift, where social sustainability is key. According to the United Nations Global Compact, “Social sustainability is about identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people,”7 and bringing an inclusive lens to visuals that show people coming together to take action around sustainability has the power to convert eco‑anxiety into eco‑activism.
Social Activism in Sustainability‑Related Visuals
If megaphones and crafted posters are tropes of protest imagery, the new generation of climate activists have added cans of soup and superglue to their tool repertoire. In recent events, protesters have thrown tomato soup at van Gogh’s sunflowers in London’s National Gallery to protest against fossil fuel licenses.8 And in Germany, protesters have glued themselves to streets across the country to protest government’s climate policies.9 Although it is debatable how these more “radical” forms of civil disobedience help or damage the cause,10 eco‑anxiety is inspiring action. Interestingly, our VisualGPS research11 finds sustainable visuals that are positive, action‑oriented and collaborative perform best across age groups and regions.

In fact, young adults in their 20’s predominate sustainable lifestyle imagery most popular with Getty Images and iStock customers. However, a visibility gap in sustainability‑related visuals exists around older generations. Older people often don’t feel included when it comes to climate action and policies,12 and this is something that also holds true for the younger generations.13 When asked what they care about most today, Baby Boomers cite world peace and inflation above climate change. However, they integrate sustainable actions such as recycling, finding alternatives to buying new, or using environmentally friendly products into their daily lives more often than any other generation.14

We found that every generation responds differently to sustainability‑related visuals.15 Baby Boomers respond more positively to visuals of environmental impact and individual actions that they take. Generation X prefers visuals that show sustainable investment for the future. Millennials respond most to visuals of sustainable consumption, where they can see themselves as eco‑conscious consumers or green business owners. Global visuals that show collective action appeal most to Gen Z who like to see themselves bringing people together to take action. So how do you show climate activism that will involve and activate all ages beyond protest visuals? Brands and businesses can do this by visualizing collaborative action and collective effort by individuals, governments and brands.
Employee Activism on the Rise
Climate activism is moving from the streets to the workplace with employee activism trending upward, most notably among younger workers. A Deloitte global study found that only 18% of Gen Zs and 16% of Millennials believe their employers are strongly committed to fighting climate change,16 while a KPMG study found that Gen Zs are ready to leave a company based on its net‑zero credentials.17 18 Furthermore, our VisualGPS research shows that work attitudes have shifted towards better work/life balance in line with people’s re‑evaluation of what is important to them.19 Workers’ social and environmental values increasingly influence work choices, and companies that create a diverse and inclusive culture are more likely to retain talent.

This is transforming how sustainability within the workplace is being visualized, which often centers on green offices with plants, floral walls and natural textures. However, shining an inclusive lens on employee involvement in sustainable action is a key opportunity. According to Salesforce Sustainability Talent Gap, 67% of global workers would like to incorporate sustainability into their current role.20 VisualGPS research shows that teamwork visuals are shifting from generic brainstorming in the offices to increased collaboration on sustainable impact, with emerging visual scenarios such as co‑designing sustainable innovations or volunteering to enlarge company’s positive impact.

When focusing on imagery and video of sustainability in the workplace think about who is being represented as acting collaboratively. For example, is there a focus only on younger workers, or visuals that show intergenerational solution‑making? Understanding unconscious bias in ‘who’ and ‘how’ an inclusive lens is brought to employee representation in workplace activism is key. With resources available like the DE&I Imagery Toolkits created by Getty Images and Citi, brands can help create authentic and multi‑faceted depictions of people within the workplace and beyond. As brands prioritize diversity and inclusion, they need to ensure intent and education convert to action.
1 “Climate Change and Mental Health: A Scoping Review” (Internaltional Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2021)
2 The Era of Climate Change Has Created a New Emotion (The Atlantic, 2022)
3 Getty Images VisualGPS consumer survey across 25 countries in APAC, Europe, UAE, North America, Brazil and LATAM. Base: 7.000 adults aged 18‑65+ years. Survey conducted between 14 July ‑ 22 August 2022
4 Getty Images VisualGPS consumer survey across 25 countries in APAC, Europe, UAE, North America, Brazil and LATAM. Base: 7.000 adults aged 18‑65+ years. Survey conducted between 29 November ‑ 13 December 2021
5 Getty Images VisualGPS consumer survey, July‑August 2022
6 Getty Images VisualGPS consumer survey, July‑August 2022
7 Social Sustainability (UN Global Compact)
8 Just Stop Oil activists throw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (The Guardian, 2022)
9 Klimaprotest der "Letzten Generation": Verkehr in München und Berlin blockiert (Tagesschau, 2022)
10 “Muss Klimaprotest radikaler werden?” (enorm Magazin, issue 05, Oct/Nov 2022)
11 Getty Images VisualGPS consumer survey across 25 countries in APAC, Europe, UAE, North America, Brazil and LATAM. Base: 7.628 adults aged 18‑65+ years. Survey conducted between 1 ‑ 26 April 2021
12 “Older Persons as Active Agents in a Changing Climate” (UNECE ‑ United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, 2022)
13 Young people call for intergenerational solidarity on the climate crisis (UN environment programme, 2022)
14 Getty Images VisualGPS consumer survey, July‑August 2022
15 Getty Images VisualGPS consumer survey, April 2022
16 The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey (Deloitte, 2022)
17 Climate quitting ‑ younger workers voting with their feet on employer’s ESG commitments (KPMG, 2023)
18 Meet the Climate Quitters (Bloomberg, 2023)
19 Getty Images VisualGPS consumer survey, July‑August 2022
20 The Planet Is Suffering: 82% of Global Workers Ready to Help, So What’s Stopping Them (Salesforce, 2022)
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