In conversation: Joss Ford and Jessica Ferrow on sustainable communications during the COVID-19 crisis

Ryan Carl - Solidarity -
Ryan Carl, Solidarity

When we first scheduled this conversation to talk all things sustainable communications, the world was still revolving.  We’d welcomed Greta to Bristol, and felt positively optimistic about momentum around climate action.  Since then, our world has ground to a literal halt, gripped by a pandemic on an unprecedented scale.  It’s no longer business as usual.

But in these uncertain times, is there a better opportunity to take a moment and use this time to have these conversations?  To talk, to connect, and consider a fresh approach.

So regardless, we asked Gather Round members Joss Ford, Founder of purpose-driven marketing agency Enviral which counts Good Energy, the Met Office and Vivo Life among its clients, and Jessica Ferrow, Sustainability and Strategy Consultant who counts Pukka Herbs, Ella’s Kitchen and Finisterre among hers to sit down, connect and discuss what sustainable behaviour means, now.  How can brands communicate with people at a time when the climate emergency has been temporarily shelved in the midst of a much more pressing crisis?  They spoke about community, inclusivity and how the values we can foster now could be a powerful framework for tackling the climate emergency in the future.

Ryan Carl - Pleasantries
Ryan Carl, Pleasantries

Joss: There is no question we are at the very beginning of a long road, and the situation is likely to get much worse.  Who would have anticipated this a month ago?  None of us.

Jessica: No one could have seen this coming and prepared for this.  I think it was Owen Jones, who posted on Twitter “Imagine popping back 3 months in time (December 23rd 2019) and explaining all of this to yourself?”  There are a couple of my clients who have shelved projects.  On the other hand, those who make food and drink are seeing exceptional sales due to all the panic buying.  I’ve heard there’s £1billion of food in everyone’s houses which wasn’t there a few weeks ago.

"Imagine popping back 3 months in time (December 23rd 2019) and explaining all of this to yourself" - Owen Jones

Joss: Yes, the food networks are secure, but one of the biggest issues was getting the food out onto the shelves.

Jessica: Exactly, I think Aldi is hiring 4000 new staff.

Joss: I read last night Amazon is going to employ 100’000 new people in the U.S to fulfil the increased number of deliveries during the crisis, and raise their minimum wage.

Jessica: Well, yes, it’s likely to be all the people who have already lost their jobs.  I read ‘The Myth of Silver Linings’ by James Murray, who is the Editor of Business Green.  It explains why the sustainability movement needs to be so careful right now.  There are many people who are going to be experiencing such hardship over the coming weeks, and we need to be conscientious of that.

Joss: I agree, there will be a huge spectrum of experiences during this crisis.  But, as people who work in sustainability, I think we’re very good at maintaining an optimistic point of view.  While there is no doubt there will be times of hardship ahead, this is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to pause, reflect and look at business-as-usual.  You know, you and I, we’ve spent our professional efforts explaining to businesses how to set out their vision, purpose, and values on a long term roadmap, would you agree?

Jessica: Yes, it’s the test, for businesses.  Brands are going to be judged and held to account on how they acted during this time.  There are great examples of how purpose and values are coming to fruition in these times of crisis: Morrisons and Co-op have been delivering to food banks, and BrewDog is repurposing their brewery to make hand sanitiser available for free to those who need it.

BrewDog 'Punk Sanitiser'
BrewDogs 'Punk Sanitiser'

Joss: Exactly, amazing! Let’s look at the reality of what’s happening right now.  People are in one place.  They’re being asked to be more grounded, which results in reflection.  They are having to be more creative.  Look at the memes!  Keeping everyone sane right now.  Communities are coming together.  Every Thursday at 8pm, people are applauding in their millions outside their house or on their balconies to show their appreciation for the NHS workers on the frontline as part of Clap for Carers.

Jacqueline Colley - Clap for our carers illustration
Jacqueline Colley, Clap for Carers

Jessica:  I think that’s a great example of how quickly people’s actions can become aligned with one another.  What we can note is first, how quickly things have changed, and second, how things which seemed impossible are not impossible, and third, how it’s an opportunity to re-evaluate choices.  There are, of course, social injustice and inequality issues which are going to compound, but there are people who have time to reassess.

Joss: And it’s up to these people and brands who are coping to take on the responsibility of reaching out to others.  In terms of establishing community again, regardless of whether it feels difficult.  Already, there are some amazing stories of collective human compassion which have come out of this crisis.  However, mental health needs to be acknowledged, too.  Can you imagine being a 16-year-old who’s main priorities are climate change, social media and being liked, and getting your GCSE results?  Now, you’re indoors with your parents, without your friends for the foreseeable.  We and brands need to avoid isolating people further, show everyone some love and take mental health seriously.

Ryan Carl 'All Together Now' and 'The Sun Still Shines'
Ryan Carl, All Together Now and The Sun Still Shines

Jessica: Agreed, and to really listen to people.  It’s all very well saying companies might realise their staff can work from home, but what if their staff associate working from home with this really lonely period of isolation — they might simply not want to?  It could go either way.

Joss: Let’s talk about messaging for brands during this time.  There’s the classic meme which has been going around which is ‘Climate change needs Coronavirus’ publicist’.  Sure, there’s the urgency, but the main point I want to make is that the media and individuals are listening to scientists, without questioning them.  That is really important, no?

'Climate Change needs to hire Corona Virus's publicist'

Jessica: Listening to the experts is so important – and something our society has been pretty bad at lately – with populist rhetoric getting in the way.  The speed at which this has had to change in the last few weeks is mind-blowing.  People weren’t really grasping just how serious the Covid situation was, and similarly to the climate crisis, there was some messaging which wasn’t getting through.  I’m hoping this shift will humble people into accepting that the scientists know what they’re talking about!

Joss: This virus is all we can talk about right now, but while this is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, there still needs to be a conversation about climate change, ocean degradation and inequality, at the right time.

Jessica: Exactly, when the time is right.  For example, I’ve been doing lots of work on sustainable packaging with my clients over the last few years.  But right now, when people are panic buying food – how much do they care about how sustainable the packaging is when the shelves are almost empty?  It’s about recognising people’s priorities, now.

Joss: Agreed, bigger than sustainable packaging is this opportunity to establish a community, and promote inclusivity as a brand.  These are both central to developing sustainable futures, and if brands can start building these messages into their marketing mix, those are going to be the pillars upon which the next sustainable marketing campaigns will be built.

Jessica: For people and business I feel it’s this Ctrl+Alt+Delete moment.  When we get out the other side of this there will be winners and losers.  Beneficiaries, and things that no longer serve us.  This is a future history exam question, right?  You know, discussing what people did and how they adapted.  We are literally living through this, and there is a sense of curiosity.  I’m trying to document it.

Ryan Carl - Circle formation
Ryan Carl, Circle Formation

Joss: There is a sense we are all unified and the government hasn’t divided opinion at the moment.  In time, when people have been inside for weeks and the impact of the virus is well and truly at its peak, the mindset might be different?  We can create this idealistic roadmap, but if we don’t pay attention to these mindsets in real-time and adapt, it will become irrelevant.

Jessica: You’re right, and I think that’s really important.  For me, talking about the climate emergency the same way I was 3 months ago feels slightly weird and jarring now; we can’t just continue to operate as if we’re in a vacuum.  I see my role evolving.  You know, achieving the perfect sustainable packaging isn’t something which is going to serve society right now.  Maybe it’s about combating loneliness, or finding an outlet for teenage angst?  Many people will feel displaced and rattled by this seismic shift.

Joss: If we come together through this seismic event, then it gives us these frameworks to work with and to apply to the next pressing crisis: the climate.  We can take a breath, and attack it together and say: media, you need to get behind it, government, you get behind it, businesses, you need to get behind it.  Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so scary.

Jessica: And what I like about that, as well and as a point for this conversation is, it’s really about stepping into what’s needed at that time.  That kind of ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’ power that we’re seeing spring up.

Joss: I agree, and for brands what I’m really pushing at the moment is two things.  The first is to go back to the basics, and use this opportunity to really hone your technical abilities.  And then the other thing is further education.  Is allocating every Thursday over the next few weeks to thinking about sustainability a good use of time, and establishing how you can connect these ideas to current consumer behaviour?  Time is time and we should all use it to reflect and secure that vision for the long term.

Ryan Carl - Deep Thoughts
Ryan Carl, Deep Thoughts

Jessica: I think it’s fair to say, and perhaps this is something which can be guaranteed is that the world has changed, and it will never be the same again.  This is both a good and a bad thing.  I think this is the time to double down, get introspective and really explore what your purpose and value proposition is and what you can bring through the lens of this particular moment in time we’re in.  And, explore the idea of resilience.  This could be the first of many disruptive crises.  If you are values-driven, in line with your own personal purpose, I don’t see how you could be doing any more than that.

To learn more about purpose-driven marketing, get in touch with Jessica or Joss via our Gather Round community page.  You can meet and find out more about Joss and the Enviral team on our Meet the Members journal post, or if you’re wondering how you as an individual can make an impact; Jessica has 10 great tips to get you started.

A huge thank you to the super talented Ryan Carl for allowing us to use his work to tell this story.  Ryan is a multidisciplinary designer and art director with a mission to create thoughtful and purposeful work.  He’s collaborated on projects with the likes of Nike, Google, J.Crew and MoMA to name a few. If you’d like to check out more of Ryan’s incredible work head over to Instagram or check out his website, here.

Ryan Carl - Alignment
Ryan Carl, Alignment