Brown is the new green

The Swedish island of Gotland is such a popular European holiday destination that its population doubles during the summer. But it regularly experiences droughts as groundwater is scarce and saltwater just below the ground can contaminate wells. Thus saving water has been a high priority for years – especially as summers get hotter. In May 2022, an irrigation ban was introduced.

But Gotland wanted to move beyond forcing people to save water – it wanted them to do it with enthusiasm. “We soon realized that the challenge was all about shifting people’s mindset of what makes the island beautiful to make water conservation beautiful, even if it lacks aesthetic qualities,” said the Swedish creative agency Differ. “We wanted people to stop wasting water, and take pride in sustainability instead.”

Thinking about how Gotland could save a lot of water if people started to see ugly, dry lawns as beautiful led to the idea of creating an ‘Ugly Lawn’ competition for Gotlanders, which proved that sustainability communication can be fun and effective.

Marcus Norström is the “ugliest lawn” champion in Gotland, Sweden. Jonathan Fältsjö / Sveriges Radio

This is how Differ’s art director, Johan Gustafsson, described it to Little Black Book, which follows advertising agencies and campaigns:

“How to get people to listen to yet another sustainability message and make them conscious of the water issue? Create a competition that salutes dry, ugly lawns! The idea was to challenge the norm of green lush lawns. If people would just see the beauty in an ugly lawn, we could make more people aware of the water shortage and save a lot of water.

By inspiring people to not water their lawns we wanted to influence a broader audience to use water responsibly in other situations. We also wanted to make it fun to save water, instead of lecturing people, which often leads to poor results.”

The competition was launched with 8 Instagram posts that invited lawn owners to share images of their ugly dry lawns and quickly became the talk of the island. When the campaign became a viral success in Sweden, Differ reached out to leading international media and journalists covering sustainability issues.

The winner, Marcus Norström, got a visit from gardener Sara Gistedt to advise him on what drought-resistant plants to add to his property.

The campaign had an impact far beyond Gotland, reaching 788 million people, at a cost of only $114, and inspired similar contests elsewhere. On Gotland, it was extremely effective – water consumption dropped by five per cent, compared to the previous summer. The irrigation ban was lifted on Sept. 1, 2022.

Karl Brodowsky, Wikimedia

The campaign will be presented to the environment ministries in European Union member states. The OECD praised it as an effective sustainability initiative. “By showing that water saving can be fun Gotland has inspired people and communities all over the world to save water during a global drought,” Differ said.

Another Swedish municipality, Östra Göinge, has launched an ugly lawn contest, and so have three Canadian municipalities, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Mission. A Florida homeowner waxed eloquent about his ugly lawn, citing Gotland’s example.

It’s not the first attempt to launch ugly lawns as a way to alleviating drought – San Francisco tried it in 2015 – but it seems to be the first to have had such a global impact.“The enormous potential of a simple but clever idea is fascinating,” says Johan Gustafson. “I like the fact that anyone on the planet who has a lawn can participate in the initiative. It’s also one of the first widely-spread campaigns that highlights the fact that we need to learn to use much less of our planet’s resources – now and in the future – an obvious but probably slightly uncomfortable fact for the ad industry.”

And he noted that the impact is lasting. “Last week, a region in southern Sweden started a local ugly lawn competition to save water. A radio station got its listeners to share images of their ugly lawns on their Facebook page. This week our client was invited to a sustainability conference hosted by the European Union to share the story of ‘Gotland’s Ugliest Lawn’, and inspire member states to create more effective water conservation campaigns. And yesterday The OECD praised the effect of ‘Gotland’s Ugliest Lawn’ in a new report on Swedish sustainability policies. So, obviously, this is something to be proud of, both for Gotlanders and our agency.”

Gotland helpfully has launched a do it yourself guide for other municipalities.


This ‘ugliest lawn’ contest got people to save a lot of water. Ad Age, Aug. 30, 2022

Gotland’s ugliest lawn. Johan Gustafson.

Problem Solved: How Gotland’s Ugliest Lawn Changed the Game for Sustainability Campaigns. Little Black Book, Jun. 19, 2023