Thought Leadership

How can the advertising industry play a bigger role in providing solutions to the climate crisis?

Brands have both an opportunity and a responsibility to promote sustainable living

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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When it comes to the climate crisis the bigger risk for the creative industries and brands alike is doing nothing at all. For while cynics might believe the industry is simply in the business of ‘selling more stuff’ it is equally clear that the advertising industry is uniquely placed to encourage consumers to make smarter decisions.

There is no denying that there are difficult decisions ahead; it's easier to change to compostable cutlery than to take difficult decisions to stop working with brands that remain overly reliant on fossil fuels. Yet being paralysed by the scale of the problem is not a sustainable approach to business.

Behaviour change; whether a big decision such as choosing an electric car or the smaller shift to wash your clothes at a lower temperature, has long been a marketing mainstay. With this in mind, we asked a selection of industry experts how the advertising industry can play a bigger role in providing solutions to the climate crisis.

Cameron Cumming

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Director of Performance

John Ayling & Associates

Despite the Ukraine Crisis currently taking precedence in our concerns, and rightly so, we have seen no abatement in the conversation around the climate crisis and the concern the British public have for the future. The events unfolding in Ukraine make it even more vital that we make significant changes in the way we power our businesses and homes.

Clients have always looked to the industry for the deepest understanding of what matters to our audiences. Putting environmental causes at the top of the agenda for many businesses reflects this recent influence. We must not get carried away though. The public is savvy to shallow words and no action. The advertising industry already has a trust issue, the more greenwashing that goes on the less weight any message will carry. Focusing our efforts behind projects like The Big Climate Fightback, from the Woodland Trust, are important steps.

We need to navigate clients’ desires to be seen to be saying the right thing and the reality of their business. We must not shirk away from our ability to offer honest advice, even if it is uncomfortable.

This is just as true under our own roofs. The industry has an ageism issue, with 78% of the workforce under 41 (IPA Agency Census 2020) but in this instance, it is a strength. The most vocal advocates for change are sitting behind our desks, doing great work for our clients.

Projects like the IPAs Climate Charter are important steps, but we must go further. We must galvanise our staff to challenge us to do better, we then must do better, before we can expect the same from clients.

Charlie Bennett

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Head of Client Services

Media Bounty

The climate crisis pits the limited impact of the individual against the collective indifference of the masses – with countries, consumers, companies and politicians each pointing the finger at each other and carrying on with business as usual. Big changes with complex solutions are needed.

This sounds scary but influencing the masses is our bread and butter. We build brands by analysing emerging trends, deciding the position we want people to take about a product or concept and buying their attention over a sustained period of time until we transform a commodity into a part of culture.

The climate crisis is already part of our culture beyond EVs or meat alternatives – sustainability should be as commonplace in creative briefs as ED&I. It doesn’t have to be the headline – phasing out 1 billion plastic straws may have no impact but 1 billion having the desire to cut down on plastic might. Every advertiser has the power to contribute to the demand for a sustainable future and to represent this demand to those who can act on it.

Individual politicians and company executives know they are expendable and accountable to the capitalist path of least resistance. When market data and mainstream media agree that sustainability wins votes and wallets – it could quickly go from greenwashing to a business KPI.

I interviewed twenty people last year. The one thing each candidate had in common was a desire to find purpose in their work, to “use their powers for good”. That means be firm with the briefs we say no to – encourage participation no matter how small – be brave with the world we want to represent.

Natalie Hall

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Associate Director, Sustainability and Corporate Reputation

Porter Novelli

Look around you and it’s fair to say sustainability advertising is everywhere. But while the number of brands jumping on the sustainability bandwagon has exploded, it hasn’t necessarily meant that they all stand up to the claims they’re making, and many companies have fallen foul of greenwashing. So how can the advertising industry provide solutions rather than problems and be a genuine force for good in the fight against climate change?

Firstly, make it accessible. Many of us work in marketing because we recognise the power and influence that words can have on our behaviour. The climate crisis, understandably, feels overwhelming and daunting. Not only that, much of the sustainability language we see today was coined by the scientific community, who obviously weren’t thinking about its marketing potential when they first used it. Our job as communicators is to make this language understandable, tangible and emotive without ignoring the facts.

But – and this leads me to my second point – don’t treat the people you are communicating to as ‘consumers’. People are getting savvier about environmental issues and greenwashing claims. We don’t want sustainability ‘sold’ to us; we want to know how brands are taking responsibility for their actions, so we can all make better-informed decisions. And this requires a different kind of creative mindset – one where actions speak louder than words and where the words that are used are not over-simplified, exaggerated or boastful.

Thirdly, advertising can only be part of the solution if it has a seat at the table along with other ESG stakeholders. We need to listen to and collaborate with those who have the technical expertise and hard data. As marketers and consultants, we need to challenge, persuade and push our clients to close their own say-do gaps. If a company doesn’t have the credentials to back up what it wants to communicate, this is a chance to confront as a collective what the business does and how far it’s willing to change for the better, not just challenge what it says.

James Cannings

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Chief Sustainability Officer

MSQ

There are a number of ways our industry can get more heavily involved. Starting at home, it’s about going beyond the usual press releases and platitudes and putting in place targets that can truly make a difference. For us at MSQ, even becoming one of the first marketing groups to be carbon negative is nowhere near enough. Agencies need to start putting in place Science-Based Targets to reduce their carbon footprint. These are the medium to long-term commitments that need to go alongside the more common short-term reductions, such as moving to renewable energy suppliers and planting trees.

Then it’s about encouraging clients to put sustainability at the front and centre of their operations too. The headline statistic I always use is that the internet has a larger carbon footprint than the airline industry – and is growing rapidly. So thinking about low-carbon digital footprints is clearly important. But from a broader point of view, we need to help clients think carefully about every aspect of their brand’s values, operations and output. It’s unlikely these days that you’ll get away with greenwashing – your brand and your products and services do genuinely need to be low-carbon, and designed and produced with the circular economy in mind.

Laurent Simon

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Chief Creative Officer

VMLY&R

While some marketers may fear that prioritising sustainability could harm their bottom line, it’s important for them to recognise that purpose and profit feed off each other. Simply: it makes business sense to focus on environmentally conscious commerce. We see that increasingly people are demanding sustainability from brands, but ultimately it is the responsibility of the brand - as essential champions of consumer behaviour - to make people care about the environment and shopping sustainably to invest in the future.

This is where the advertising industry needs to come in. Our industry, which is built on selling products and ideas, has a responsibility to guide brands through this change, support the way they talk about and invest in sustainability, and celebrate them for doing it well. 

In order to do so, we must move creativity upstream- away from delivering creative solutions to short-term marketing problems and towards making truly impactful changes at the source. Our work with Lombard Odier shows just how impactful this can be. We didn’t just create a new campaign, we introduced an ownable financial lexicon that gave the bank, and businesses, a fresh way to think, talk and act on the question of sustainability. The new positioning made sustainable investments not only desirable but cut through a tidal wave of greenwash. So, with agencies taking a more active role in standing with their brand clients, we can produce creative work that still drives awareness, but that also gives society the tools to eradicate the issues we face at the source.

Lizzie Hynes

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Senior Consultant

Iris

The advertising industry has a huge role to play in making customers more aware of climate change. We must use our ability to sell to ensure we educate on and promote products and services that can help consumers reduce their environmental impact. Advertising should make these products desirable and reinforce where a product is better than, or at least as good as, a non-sustainable alternative e.g. design, taste, and performance. 

This responsibility is actually being placed upon brands by consumers themselves. More than ever they are looking to brands to help them be more sustainable without having to compromise on their lifestyle - they want brands to do the heavy lifting and tell them what to purchase. For marketers, this obviously presents an opportunity for growth, but in the pursuit of content and claims that can help them to differentiate in a competitive market, this opportunity can swiftly turn to risk. It is creating challenges for internal operations and sustainability teams who are fearful of the risks to reputation and are reluctant to shout too loudly given that products are just the tip of the iceberg of things to achieve. So, despite best intentions, many brands end up inadvertently greenwashing in their communications by, for example, not contextualising or substantiating a claim, or through using short, memorable copy that ultimately misleads through lack of specificness. In fact, in 2021 the CMA found that 40% of claims could be misleading, and more recently, the number of adverts banned for greenwashing has tripled.

It is, therefore, really important that brands build reputation and credibility in this space and avoid greenwashing that can result in fines, loss of credibility and, ultimately, undermine industry-wide efforts to guide consumers to more sustainable solutions. At Iris, our greenwashing workshop is designed to help brands through this journey by giving them a masterclass in communicating sustainability. The programme highlights greenwashing regulation watchouts, reviews their market for leaders and laggards, and identifies opportunities to credibly shine in the sustainability space by aligning needs and narratives across the business.