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Mary Riddle headshot

3 Ways Images Can Help You Tell Your ESG Story

Many companies downplay their ESG efforts out of fear their communications will be labeled as greenwashing, but consumers believe these efforts are important. Getty Images' Samuel Malave Jr. offers advice on how to use images to authentically communicate sustainability commitments and reach more consumers. 
By Mary Riddle
A person stands between rows of an indoor, vertical farm — ESG

(Image courtesy of Getty Images.)

A fear of greenwashing has led to another problem for many companies: greenhushing. Greenhushing, or the downplaying of ESG (environmental, social and governance) efforts, is on the rise as companies seek to avoid changing political headwinds and outside scrutiny. But 83 percent of Europeans believe companies have a moral obligation to improve society and the environment with the resources they have, according to research from the visual media company Getty Images. Additionally, 71 percent of American consumers believe it is important for companies to have ESG guidelines and practices. 

TriplePundit sat down with Sammy Malave Jr., manager of creative insights at Getty Images, to understand how organizations can use images to authentically communicate their sustainability commitments and, ultimately, reach more consumers. 

“There is a lot of global pressure around brands getting ESG messaging right, given the importance and weight of meeting the UN goals by 2030. Brands want to get it right and are fearful of greenwashing,” Malave said. “Our research tells us in many ways that ESG, specifically, is very important to consumers … ESG is up there with profit as a metric of success.”

1. Your sustainability visuals should reflect consumers’ daily lives

A person getting into an electric vehicle.
The most impactful images are authentic representations of everyday life that depict the way consumers interact with a company. (Image courtesy of Getty Images.)

While companies might be tempted to use aspirational imagery in their sustainability communications, visuals are most effective when they are authentic representations of the present. 

“We know from the image testing we do … that consumers relate best to images that feel reflective of everyday life,” Malave explained. “An ad for an electric vehicle should feel like a slice of life of a family that just so happens to operate an EV. That philosophy should extend to all brands. If you are authentic to yourself as a brand, it will feel authentic to consumers.”

Visuals are most impactful when they accurately and authentically depict the ways in which consumers interact with a company. 

“We need to understand the way that, as a brand, you are attempting to make an impact,” Malave said. “Be honest and visualize it in a way that makes sense, showing what impact looks like for the brand and what it looks like for consumers.” 

2. Visuals should accurately reflect financial priorities 

People pulling items out of a brown paper bag.
Images should align with the company's priorities and investments to avoid appearing inauthentic. (Image courtesy of Getty Images.)

Visuals should be used to emphasize the areas that companies have adequately resourced. 

“We should be asking brands to be introspective,” Malave said. “When you do your ESG or CSR reports, where are you placing your emphasis and investment?” 

Visuals that do not align with well-resourced corporate priorities are at risk of being labeled as inauthentic or greenwashed.

“Sustainability is not about using green imagery, but it is about holding the supply chain accountable and doing the DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] work and decarbonization,” Malave said. “The emphasis and investment will differ company by company, but brands should take an honest look of where they are making the impact so it can show up in marketing and seem authentic to both the brand and the consumers’ way of life.” 

3. For authentic visual representation, stakeholder engagement is key

A person unlocking a publicly-available bike.
Companies should lean on the ways they can help consumers on their own sustainability journeys when selecting images. (Image courtesy of Getty Images.) 

To understand what kind of sustainability imagery will best resonate with consumers, companies must have robust stakeholder engagement strategies. Sustainability is critical for developing customer loyalty over the long-term, but the messaging must be authentic. 

“You do that by listening and paying attention, being honest about what consumers want, and how your brand can participate in community empowerment and DEI and all of the things that ladder up to make a sustainable business,” Malave said. “We must ask brands to understand the holistic nature of ESG and understand where consumers fit into that.”

When selecting images for marketing and corporate communications, brands should lean on the ways in which they help consumers in their own personal sustainability journeys. 

“Authenticity is important in the depiction of sustainable imagery,” Malave said. “Companies cannot rely on tropes and the color green and surface level representations of sustainability, like the very stale image of someone dropping something into a recycling bin. It is a challenge to move past that. It is difficult to go a level deeper, but it is not impossible.”

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

Read more stories by Mary Riddle