Are diamonds really a koala’s best friend?

Global fashion jewellery brand Tiffany is raising money to save Australia’s koalas by selling  diamond encrusted koala shaped jewellery priced at up to $24,000 and donating the profits to a conservation organisation.

Importantly, Tiffany have been quick to draw media attention to the virtue of their actions, triggered when Tiffany executives watched the impact of bushfires which tore across Eastern Australia at the end of 2019. The 60,000 koalas who died or were displaced were just the cutest and most iconic of around 3 billion animals estimated by the WWF to have been killed or displaced as a result of the fires.

Tiffany claims to have donated more than $10 million over the past four years to the California based Wildlife Conservation Network. That’s around $2.5 million a year. Tiffany turns over around $4.4 billion a year, so in the scale of the business it’s not even loose change. But it is another great eco-branding opportunity, and Tiffany is hardly the only company converting environmental awareness into brand value.

The bushfires were an environmental catastrophe, but Australia is a wealthy country. The koalas, and all their little bush friends, wouldn’t have been saved by another couple of million dollars, say to help prevent illegal poaching (there isn’t any). Koala numbers are declining in parts of eastern Australia because of human encroachment on their habitat.

The bushfires just made a bad situation worse by burning too much of their remaining habitat down too, with a scale and intensity worryingly reflective of the escalating effects of climate change. Tipping a couple of million bucks into a California-based conservancy probably isn’t going to make much difference to their prognosis.

Apparently the global music industry is also seeking to reinvent itself as more sustainable by cutting down on the unnecessary global travel consumed by touring musicians and their support crews. This has triggered a bunch of campaign responses including Music Declares Emergency and Earth Percent to find ways of making the music industry more sustainable, such as by using green energy to make vinyl records (why not just stream?). It’s a bit of a stretch to think climate change is being caused by turning rock bands. More possibly the industry just might be taking itself a little too seriously.

Green branding can take either a functional or emotional approach. The functional provides detailed information about the actions taken to mitigate environmental impacts, while the emotional appeals to a more emotional response by consumers by creating a (sometimes false) sense of satisfaction by “doing something”. Like buying koala shaped, diamond encrusted jewellery.

The problem in Australia is that the lure of green branding is directly impacting the operation of critical systems, like the electricity grid. Corporates looking to improve their environmental reputation are now the major driver of renewable investment in Australia.

The problem from a technical perspective is that the National Electricity Market doesn’t really need more renewables at the moment. It needs more fast-start, firming and balancing technologies like batteries, pumped hydro and even reciprocating engine gas peakers. The trouble is, like bushfire affected frogs and lizards, these don’t have the same brand impact as a wind or solar farm.

It’s all done with good intentions, a desire to be seen to be part of the world record pace of renewable development in Australia whilst effectively offsetting a company’s own emissions with the most cost effective and accessible technologies going around. Electricity systems, like the planet, shouldn’t be seen as a branding opportunity. Both are finely balanced and critically important systems. Maybe we should treat them as such.