The Nit-picking Narrative

Anyone who is interested in the progress around sustainability will probably have noticed a recurring theme in the mass media over the last decade and how they cover it- – the nit-picking narrative.

Anyone who is interested in the progress that society is making around sustainability will perhaps have noticed a recurring theme in the mass media over the last decade and how it is covered.

So much of the coverage around brands and initiatives in particular leads on being pessimistic, not optimistic.

Fixating, for example, on the flaws in things and why they won’t work vs celebrating the pioneering innovations that might require a consumer reframe or new business model.

The cynicism and nitpicking feels like a hangover from the greenwashing days of the noughties, when I first worked on sustainability for clients in Asia. Back then, many companies rushed to virtue signal by referencing sustainability, but couldn’t back it up.

But I believe things have changed a lot.

My issue with the cynical narrative is the barrier to behaviour change in consumers it creates.

I also believe that companies do actually want to practice what they preach, this isn’t an era for hot air, because of the transparency and accountability that the internet creates.

Many brands and businesses are doing what they can and this should be celebrated and championed, not nitpicked because it’s not perfect.

Celebrate the gain, don’t focus on the gap.

The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” comes to mind, where the media seek to find a flaw or an angle of negativity on anything just to get clicks, but this default framing impacts more than we realise.

A common example is obsessing over the upfront price of a product (such as an electric vehicle) vs talking about the total cost of ownership (TCO) over its lifetime.

EVs, for example, offer multiple savings such a lower fuel and ongoing maintenance.

Are they perfect? No.

Are there questions outstanding about residual values of used EVs given how fast the category is moving? Yes.

So let’s discuss, not dismiss them.

There was a piece on the BBC yesterday that focused on the negative aspects of owning an EV, rather than celebrating how far things have come (that’s how the segment was introduced), and it felt massively misrepresentative of the wider experience / story.

Same goes for durable, high quality items. We should focus less on the upfront unit cost, and more on the TCO.

Getting this message across to consumers is fascinating and frustrating in equal droves.

A negative, nitpicking narrative really does influence consumer attitudes (it’s all about the moments of sustainability!). I have heard and seen it first hand in research recently too.

Do you agree? What do you think we should do about it?

Mat Sloan

Head, Brand:lab