Innovation for the Planet

Trends / Sustainability
Andriy Onufriyenko
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Nov 9, 2022
A recent Deloitte study found that for top CPG executives, sustainability is far and away the most important area in which they plan to innovate—over five times more, in fact, than anything else, including creating new products.1 While the CPG industry is now using more visuals showing renewable energy sources than sustainable lifestyle choices, most visuals used to convey the concept of technological innovation abstractly show computers, numbers, and glowing shapes in dark rooms, influenced by sci‑fi movies like Minority Report or Ready Player One, which imagine a relatively dystopian future. This may reflect the fact that companies are gathering more data along the supply chain in order to better inform sustainable practices, but it doesn't paint the full picture of how innovation is being applied specifically to help the planet. And according to our VisualGPS consumer survey, the 86% of Americans who think private companies have a responsibility to fight climate change would want to know this.

In light of the looming climate crisis and suspicion around new technologies, it can be challenging to picture these concepts in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and even optimistic—but it has been done before. In 2021, Chobani yogurt released an animated ad which told a utopian sci‑fi story about a futuristic city where humans, nature, and advanced technology co‑exist harmoniously.2 Its nature‑meets‑future aesthetic, influenced by Studio Ghibli and the  “solarpunk” aesthetic of speculative fiction circles, was well‑received by consumers and online commenters alike. With this ad, Chobani intended to communicate its values, which, like many CPG brands today, involves a systemic commitment to sustainability all along their supply chain in order to protect the environment along with their bottom line.3 With this precedent set, there is an opportunity for CPG brands to visually express the concepts of both innovation and nature in order to convey their efforts and a sense of optimism about the future.
Introducing sustainability to the supply chain
Much of CPG brands' sustainable innovation is happening along the supply chain, in the form of new approaches to goal‑setting, resource management, energy production, and data measurement.4 We know from our VisualGPS consumer survey image‑testing that solar panels and wind farms resonate with consumers as strong symbols of sustainability—but Getty Images' customer searches are rising rapidly for “ESG” (+349%), "carbon capture" (+308%), and "net zero" (+668%), indicating that visualizing these new science‑based efforts is a priority for businesses. However, ensuring that these nascent goals and innovations are recognizable to consumers is another story.

Today, though, American consumers are more savvy about sustainability than ever. As climate change accelerates, consumers are becoming more disillusioned with effectiveness of their individual actions, such as recycling, which have been a mainstay of popular sustainability visuals for some time. Our VisualGPS consumer survey found while recycling is the top sustainable action Americans take, 76% are concerned that their recycling ends up in landfills—and the unfortunate truth is that much of it does.9 Even Gen Z and Millennials, who are more likely to say that climate change is affecting their lives, are now less likely than older generations to recycle, citing larger systemic issues as the main cause of climate change.

So, CPG brands don't need to shy away from using more visuals which highlight the new, innovative ways that they are harnessing science to help the planet. Choosing new symbols such as infinity loops, sustainable goals, or "targets", or new technologies, such as algae‑based carbon sequestration can help move the needle in terms of which types of visuals are instantly recognized as sustainable.  Color palates that contain green, blue, or brown, for example, remain evergreen indicators of sustainability (pun intended) because of their association with the natural world. But our latest wave of consumer research found that consumers also respond to images of nature with brighter color palettes, too, including those associated with emerging technology, such as magenta, purple, and turquoise. In this way, combining the concepts of innovation and nature can help introduce new sustainable science to the supply chain and consumers alike.
Origin stories: from nature to nurture
Nature has long been an important visual theme for CPG brands, as it evokes the idea of freshness in the presence of mostly shelf‑stable products. Now, the Food & Beverage industry in particular is using more visuals which also show the human origin of products, demonstrating transparency and trustworthiness through images of farms, factories, and small businesses. As these sources adopt more sustainable practices, it will become more important to highlight them. For example, the sophisticated technologies that farmers use to measure soil moisture, regulate greenhouse temperatures, monitor crops, and grow hydroponics tend to be less visible, even though these practices are making products more eco‑friendly. Likewise, as the plant‑based revolution takes hold, the production of tofu, seitan, and other meatless proteins are becoming more normalized. The future of origin story visuals will evoke freshness as well as foment understanding of the new and innovative processes that go into producing sustainable goods today.

At the same time, any origin story with a human factor will need to reassure consumers that supply chains are sustainable for producers' communities, not just the environment in the abstract. Our VisualGPS consumer survey found that 6 in 10 Americans think it’s more important than ever that companies focus on supporting employees’ wellbeing, and that goes for workers of all kinds. Digital‑native Food & Beverage brands are already adopting visuals which spotlight the diversity, autonomy, and wellbeing of blue‑collar workers and independent businesses, while this remains an opportunity for larger corporate brands. As climate change affects different parts of the world disproportionately, CPG brands will need to show that they are fairly sustaining the humans working on their behalf, too.
Sustainable packaging: the medium is the message
Over the past few years, many CPG brands have redesigned packaging itself to be more sustainable, offering a more tangible signal to consumers. P&G Beauty has released plastic‑free deodorants and razors5; Coors introduced cardboard beverage holders which will eventually replace all plastic six‑pack rings6; Seventh Generation now sells laundry detergent pods in reusable tins.7 Furthermore, instantly‑recognizable official certifications on packaging—such as “USDA organic” or “the Non‑GMO project” or "Fair Trade"—now do a lot of the visual work of reassuring consumers that a product is actually organic, sustainable, or cruelty‑free.8 Our VisualGPS consumer survey found, that in 2022 40% of Americans go out of their way to buy sustainable products, up from 34% in 2021, a sign that as brands offer more sustainable options to choose from, consumers are rising to the occasion. So consider visuals which demonstrate the newfound ubiquity of sustainable and compostable packaging and how it is showing up in consumers' everyday lives more and more. Un‑dyed cardboard and paper packaging, wooden or compostable silverware, and recycled plastic containers are all becoming more commonplace for takeout food, beauty products, and household goods. As the climate crisis accelerates, consumers are becoming more savvy about what is sustainable and how—so visual messaging must rise to the occasion, as well.
Eco-tourism in Latin America