Three Tips for Visualizing Sustainability in a More Empathetic World

 In Industry Trends

1181188394, SolStock

Following 14 months marked by a global pandemic and social justice movements, consumers expect brands to communicate with greater empathy than ever before. Earth Day, celebrated globally on April 22, is a further reminder that customers also expect sustainability-minded communications from brands both big and small. At iStock, global customer searches for “solar panels on roof” and “sustainable finance” rose significantly in 2020, along with terms like “empathy” and “gratitude.” The familiar visual clichés typically used to convey environmental issues—the lone polar bear, smokestacks, hands cupping a sprout—are too abstract and impersonal to stand out in today’s crowded, sophisticated visual landscape.

According to iStock Creative Researcher Rebecca Rom-Frank, this is the beginning of an exciting era for sustainability now that we’re focusing on how best to address climate change. iStock’s Visual GPS research revealed that sustainability is a major force in American consumers’ decision-making, with 7 in 10 consumers expecting brands to be environmentally aware in their visual communications.

In an effort to rethink the way sustainability looks in commercial visuals, the iStock creative team explored climate change visuals from 2001-2009 and found that solutions were frequently missing—62% showed impacts, while only 9% showed solutions. This further demonstrates an immediate opportunity for brands to fill the visual gap and forge positive emotional connections with today’s eco-conscious consumers.

To support brands big and small looking to do this, iStock created a guideline outlining best practices when selecting sustainability stills, video, and illustrations—whether a brand is seeking to convey the steps that their business is taking towards setting and achieving sustainable goals or seeking to better connect with consumers by showing how people make sustainable choices in their own lives.

Here are three takeaways to keep in mind:

Tell the human story


1266212565, Kanawa_Studio

In order to move away from abstract visual metaphors and clichés, intentionally take steps to make sustainability personal, as authentic moments conveying human connection and emotion resonate more powerfully with global consumers. The United Nations’ definition of “sustainability” goes a step beyond environmental conservation to also emphasize human health, social equality, and economic vitality, too.

Although businesses often address sustainability and D&I as two separate issues, when it comes to the most effective visuals, these should be intertwined. Climate change affects everyone, and Visual GPS shows that 82% of American consumers see themselves as eco-friendly, meaning that people of all races, ages, and genders care about sustainability-related issues. It’s imperative to include groups who may have previously been underrepresented at all intersections of identity including gender, race, ethnicity, age, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, and culture, in your visual communications.

Tell real visual stories of what individuals, communities, and businesses are doing to protect the environment


1160205101, svetikd

Businesses are making more ambitious pledges. For example, by 2030, 75% of Fortune Global 500 companies plan to operate carbon-neutrally, while half of multinational CEOs will extend the life of the material resources their companies use by shifting to a circular economy model. Likewise, Visual GPS revealed that consumers do many different things to support the environment, depending on their lifestyle—from recycling to making their home energy efficient, to adopting a vegan diet.

Note that today’s consumer is aware of “greenwashing,” which is the practice of conveying an environmentally responsible image through generic visual clichés, even when a company isn’t taking action to reduce its footprint. To build trust, don’t hesitate to broaden the scope of sustainability visuals and tell authentic stories, choosing visuals that reflect what your brand is really doing to protect the environment.

Humanize sustainable technology and innovation


181062267, querbeet

Over the past few years, visuals showing zero-waste consumer choices—such as reusable bags, cups, and straws—have become a popular, and admittedly convenient, way of conveying sustainability. However, when iStock tested visuals as part of its Visual GPS efforts, it found that global consumers responded three times more strongly to visuals showing renewable energy—which means consumers are savvier than you might be giving them credit for. As a brand, reflect that you’re listening by showing how these sustainable technologies fit into people’s everyday lives and center the workforce that makes renewable energy sources function. There is an urgent need to move the visual language of sustainability forward, so keeping pace with both technological and social progress is key.

To explore sustainability-inspired imagery and video, visit

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