First of its kind sustainable funeral offering debuts brand and digital identity

Not for profit organisation, Earth Funerals, is looking to completely disrupt the funeral sector with an environmentally conscious approach. We find out more

A not-for-profit organisation focused on delivering Australia’s first truly sustainable and environmentally conscious funerals has debuted its brand identity and website as it works to secure funding needed to launch.

Earth Funerals is the brainchild of founder and director, Kevin Hartley, who has been working in the funeral industry for 30 years and has extensive experience with the likes of Simplicity Funerals, lawn cemeteries and crematoriums. The idea for the Earth Funerals approach came from growing dissatisfaction and frustration with the industry about the way funerals were being conducted.

Hartley’s big bugbear was the limited options for people outside a traditional burial or cremation service, particularly when it came to more sustainable or less environmentally impactful options. This led him to start offering shroud burials, a decision he told CMO “altered my perception” around the way things could be done.

“It felt I was doing something more meaningful and certainly changed the perceptions of the families I was dealing with,” he said. “Yet while people all loved them, they weren’t happy with having to still bury their loved ones in the cemetery. I was only offering the first half of a more sustainable funeral. I could bring down the complexity and waste of the funeral itself… but people still needed to be buried in a designated churchyard or cemetery.”

Yet finding alternative burial sites was restricted by significant legislation and laws governing the sector. Hartley started working with South Australian independent minister, Bob Such, who was spearheading efforts to change legislation in that state in order to allow for a more natural kind of burial by redefining the sites that could be used. Hartley also began exploring alternative sites and options.

“If we could use a patch of ground people had donated or given to us, we could produce a natural burial completely unlike a cemetery, without all the concrete roads and infrastructure, and in a simple, environmentally sustainable way,” he said.

So began years of work to disrupt the funeral business and offer a truly sustainable solution for Australians. But it was only was when Hartley met the CEO of a sustainability charity, Starfish Initiatives, that the Earth Funerals idea truly turned a corner and came to fruition. Hartley pivoted his model using a not-for-profit structure.

As Hartley puts it, Earth Funerals has tackled and reinvented every aspect of the funeral model – from the service itself, to the infrastructure and legislation required long-term to lay the dead to rest sustainably and respectfully, and managing the final burial sites. He now has three sites in the works across NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

“We have built an A380 here, a funeral operation that’s scalable nationally, that has the infrastructure to operate burial grounds across several legislations, and we are at the nascent stage of having three burial grounds all ready,” Hartley said. “All this to date has been done on $80,000 in seed funding from generous donors plus a massive amount of pro bono assistance.”

Pro bono partners that have helped to realise the Earth Funerals vision include law firm, HWL Ebsworth Lawyers, Ecological Australia and accounting firms as well as brand and communications partner, VMLY&R. Hartley estimated $1.1 million has been invested so far through these partnerships.

“What we have built is a charitable corporation primed by donor funds to come out of the blocks,” he said. “We are building a charitable funeral sector sitting alongside the commercial sector and we have had to build every single part of this model.”

But to move forward, Earth Funerals requires an injection of funding. Hartley said with $2.5 million of one-off donor funding, the organisation can launch and be viable for the long-term. It can also start putting money back into the earth from its first service.

The Earth Funeral model is conservatively based on turning over about $5 million per year, of which $1.5m would go back into the earth. Proceeds from funerals would be used for examples to support activities such as bush revegetation projects or indigenous species breeding programs. Partners include Nature Australia and Odonata.

“Look at the opportunity: If only 5 per cent of people in Australia chose this, you’d be looking at putting $25 million back into the environment every year,” Hartley commented. “If it’s anything like the research take-up, that’s multiple millions of dollars going directly to the earth.

“This is about running a business for the planet. And there aren’t too many of those.”

Brand and digital storytelling

Enter digital marketing and brand building. To develop the NFP’s proposition, VMLY&R Melbourne helped build out a brand identity, logo and website for Earth Funerals.

The first phase in a two-phase digital project was to create visual brand identity and present content digitally that conceptually and simply reflected what Earth Funerals is all about to strengthen its resonance with prospective donors and partners. This was inspired by the earth, sustainability and climate change. A supporting 40-page information memorandum has also been created explaining the Earth Funerals model and vision.

Phase two of the digital work, due in mid-2021, will be about further redeveloping the website to extend reach and appeal to potential consumers and clients. Functionality on the cards, for example, includes mapping features allowing users to search for Earth Funerals burial sites as well as down to an individual level.

Hartley praised the work of the VMLY&R team, from its emotive visual brand iconography to its ability to quickly understand the value and importance of what Earth Funerals is trying to do.

“We went from an initial meeting to an MOU with VMLY&R in six weeks. VMLY&R just got it and has conveyed this at a human level and put it into a shape so people will understand what we’re doing,” he said.

“We have shifted the focus from being on the funeral to the future. This takes that mourning moment – and a funeral is a definitive moment – and extends your thinking to the future. That’s the purpose of a funeral – to define a line in the sand. There’s no product, it’s hopefully just a set of moments that in time are of comfort. That is what this type of funeral does. And it’s beautifully expressed in the website and branding.”        

VMLY&R Melbourne managing partner, Sarah Bailey, said her team, although initially unfamiliar with the concept of environmentally-conscious funerals, quickly saw the value the Earth Funerals’ team could provide to Australians in what is a difficult and disorienting time.  

“The topic may be considered taboo in some circles,” said Bailey. “However, my team very quickly wanted to be a part of the funeral revolution and drive real change in this category. The first thing we did was create a new identify for the Earth Funerals brand, which was vitally important from a credibility perspective to signal the organisation’s environmental credentials and overall intent to market.”  

The website UX, design and content was critical to provide a destination for fundraising and key information. At the same time, the site needed to inspire people that their money will contribute to establishing a sustainable funeral industry of the future, Bailey said.  

“This is an opportunity for people to make meaningful decisions about a very important part of our lives while accessing the opportunity to do something that has a positive sustainability and climate action outcome,” Hartley continued. “It’s a personal choice, but if we look at things from an environmental sense, we all have to do something and change what we do. Earth Funerals has the potential to offer a genuinely sustainable service, a meaningful ritual for end of life, while also providing a meaningful climate change action that is demonstrable.” 

And Hartley said the impact is considerable. He quoted US research that showed 17- 30 per cent of people would be interested in a sustainable funeral if it was cost-effective and legitimate.

“I know from 30 years in the industry anecdotally that there are many people who will want these kinds of funerals,” he added.

To shore up its sustainability credentials, Earth Funerals is employing a Swedish model called ‘Natural Step Framework’. Everything is assessed to see if there are ways to eliminate the draw of activities from resources of the planet. Hartley pointed to reducing toxins such as non-biodegradable plastics and reducing impact overall on surface of the planet as examples.

“Every part of the funeral is considered. If we can’t eliminate impact on the environment, this system encourages making a genuine assessment then offsetting,” he explained. “Everything we propose has a natural step assessment in it – we have built these standards into every standard, proposal and element of this. And the operations of the business will be treated the same way we are approaching every aspect of the funeral.”  

Earth Funerals has so far secured $190,000 from two donors and hopes to be trading within six months if it can secure the $2.5m in funding required to get out of the gate.

“If we secure this funding, then right from the beginning, we can start contributing back to the environment,” Hartley added.

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