We all live in “mediocracies” whatever our country’s form of government. We live in “attention economies” where brands, keywords and media trump politics, economics and culture in what Marshall McLuhan called “our global village”. Today we see countries following Britain’s branding in the 1990s as “Cool Britannia,” such as China’s promoting “The Chinese Dream” and the “circular economy”.
The sustainable, responsible investing (SRI) movement began in the 1970s with weapons-free portfolios of Pax World Fund and Alice Tepper Marlin’s “peace portfolio” at the Council on Economic Priorities. The growth of this movement, now worldwide, has gone through many branding stages: from negative screening, pioneered by Calvert, shunning South African companies under apartheid in the 1980s, to embrace positive screens typified by Ethical Markets and our Green Transition Scoreboard®, Ethical Biomimicry Finance® and EthicMark® Awards.
Acronyms and brands evolved from “socially responsible” to “double bottom line”, quickly one-upped to “triple bottom line” (people, planet, profit) to ESG (environmental, social, governance) to “green”, “ethical” and the latest and most obscure “impact” investing. The newest is the “circular economy” promoted by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (UK), Ceres, and the World Economic Forum. The term “circular” is clear and helps educate investors about the need to mimic nature in re-using and recycling all components in the economy. So this is a more useful re-branding than “impact” since all investments have impacts -- some blow the tops off mountains or pollute the Gulf of Mexico. The term “social” has been expunged in the USA for fear of its political connotation, returning as social media and the “shareconomy”.
The branding of the sustainability movement began in academia with clumsy terms: “steady-state economies”, “minimum throughput” and “low-entropy economies”. I remember attending seminars in the 1970s on what later came to be known as “sustainability” issues, a term coined in the 1980s by my colleague Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute. Slowly, the terms “recycling”, “remanufacturing” and “re-use” appeared. Those joining me critiquing obsolete economics added “full-cost pricing”, “cradle-to-cradle”, “life cycle analysis” and “internalizing the externalities”. I subtitled my Creating Alternative Futures (1978) the “End of Economics.” Environmentalists added “ecological economics”, “resource accounting” and recently “exergy” and “exernomics,” while science-policy wonks championed “technology assessment” and created the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1975 (which I advised). This proved a threat to prevailing economic ideologies and was shut down by the Republicans in 1996.
Clearly, all these earlier branding efforts by growing movements for sustainability were failing in mass media and public understanding. Corporate marketing and advertising their sustainability efforts often backfired – seen as “greenwashing” by critics. The growing prominence of the “circular economy” brand is a breakthrough in public understanding and will continue to find broader acceptance in many sectors and, at last, in mass media, along with the “shareconomy” which maps burgeoning peer-to-peer sectors, joining what I termed the “love economy” of barter and unpaid caring sectors in our TV Series.
Branding and constant re-branding are key differentiation and market-positioning strategies for all companies, including those in finance with the arrival of “green” bonds. Some brands inform while others obscure. Some ply egregious disinformation, such as the “clean coal” campaign, and are propagated through advertising – influencing news content and political opinion. This is why Ethical Markets Media sponsors the EthicMark® Awards for Advertising that Uplifts the Human Spirit and Our Future Potentials, which I founded and initially funded in 2004. We seek to raise the bar on this influential $500 billion spent annually worldwide -- a form of public education, often counter to public health and fostering unhealthy consumption. We promote the Truth In Advertising Assurance Set–Aside (featured in the UNDP’s 1998 Human Development Report on consumerism). Since advertising is tax-deductible for companies, advertising found to be misleading could find the company’s tax subsidy escrowed until reviewed. If campaigns contain misinformation, these escrowed funds could be apportioned to advertising agencies hired by NGOs and public educators to set the record straight – the precedent here is tobacco.
Ethical Markets Media’s mission to reform markets and metrics while helping grow green economies worldwide is enhanced by the “circular economy” branding success. Our daily mission is reporting ethical performance of corporations, financial and investment brands and setting higher standards with our brands (Green Transition Scoreboard®, Ethical Biomimicry Finance®, Ethical Money Directory, EthicMark®, Transforming Finance and others). We are delighted to promote wider use of the “circular economy”. While branding is usually a competitive exercise, we urge greater cooperation and the kind of broader umbrella that the “circular economy” is creating.