'Sustainability is good business strategy'

Anna Lungley, Chief Sustainability Officer at dentsu international discusses the advertising industry’s pivotal role in combating the climate crisis

Georgie Moreton

Assistant Editor, BITE


This week some of the most influential leaders are meeting in New York for Climate Week to discuss how urgent action is needed to tackle the climate crisis. The goal is to move the conversation along from setting science-based targets to action. “The advertising industry has a golden opportunity to drive that positive change,” says Anna Lungley, Chief Sustainability Officer at dentsu international.

Lungley has been passionate about sustainability for as long as she can remember and has come a long way since writing a GCSE dissertation on the impact of cattle farming and methane on the greenhouse effect. As a Communications Director at BT she joined the brand’s Sustainability team and moved into the area full time going on to become Chief Sustainability Officer at denstu. 

The advertising industry has a golden opportunity to drive that positive change

Anna Lungley, Chief Sustainability Officer at dentsu international

Lungley’s position at the intersection between sustainability and communications is a great vantage point from which to see where change will come from. The biggest challenges the world faces when it comes to combatting the climate crisis are amplifying the message and changing behaviours; a capability that the communications industry has like no other. “The physical footprint of the industry is small compared to cement or FMCG but the brain print we have over society is huge,” she says.

The role of advertising in driving sustainability

Back in April the IPCC released a report on demand-side mitigation which is about creating demand for low carbon products to encourage consumers to make more sustainable purchases. “Up until recently it had been underestimated when creating Net Zero strategies but the report revealed this could lead to 40-70% emission reduction. The early instinct we had at denstu is now being rooted in evidence,” explains Lungley.

The advertising industry plays a crucial role in facilitating the shift in demand and creating a more sustainable purchase cycle. Lungley says; “That's only going to happen from creative agencies, this is the industry that knows how to change behaviours and arguably the only industry that can do it at the pace we need in this climate crisis.”

The same skill that enabled us to drive sales is exactly what will enable us to drive sales of plant-based burgers and electric vehicles, renewable energy and all of the things we need to move forward

Anna Lungley, Chief Sustainability Officer at dentsu international

While the industry itself is low on emissions, it's no secret that the goal of advertising is growth. Production emissions may be low but campaigns can encourage consumerism and consumption that have a huge impact. Yet, the industry’s ability to drive such growth is its superpower. “The same skill that enabled us to drive sales is exactly what will enable us to drive sales of plant-based burgers and electric vehicles, renewable energy and all of the things we need to move forward,” says Lungley.

Cost of living versus the climate crisis

The current social, economic and political climate remains turbulent and with consumers faced with a cost of living crisis, it is essential that the climate crisis isn’t put on the back burner. 

“Every brand or business strategy needs to start by considering the macroeconomic context in which we operate,” says Lungley, “If you are a business leader today you cannot plan or move forward without considering the impact of energy prices and the rising cost of food fuel poverty, the impact it will have on your people and your potential customers.” 

Whilst it might be tempting to go after quick wins while consumers are pressed for cash, building a sustainable strategy is what will see businesses win long term. “Any brand that isn't factoring those things in won’t be in business in a year or two. Sustainability is good business strategy.”

Lungley points to IKEA’s plant-based meatballs as an example of how a more sustainable choice can be better for business. “The plantballs use 99% less water which reduces carbon and they are actually much cheaper to bring to market. It is a myth that a sustainable product is a more expensive product.” 

“If you are designing sustainability into your core business strategy, you’ll be looking for efficiencies, you will be designing out waste, you'll be optimising the supply chain. All of that can drive down costs and mitigate risks,” she adds.

We need to make people feel hopeful

Anna Lungley, Chief Sustainability Officer at dentsu international

Tackling the climate crisis is business critical

Sustainability is critical for business today and Lungley shares that this is reflected “at the heart of every brief.” Events like COP26 have increased awareness around the climate crisis meaning that every brand, in every industry including advertising “couldn't be inauthentic.”

“Now we are moving beyond purpose marketing to actually back things up with tangible action, consumers are calling out brands for greenwashing for example. We need to get this right and make it real,” she adds,

The role of the creative industry is particularly critical as she explains: “It stems from PR,” adding: “Raising awareness, helping people to understand, be inspired and excited by the solutions and not just depressed is really important. We need to make people feel hopeful.”

Creativity driving change

The power of creativity in the industry is not just limited to spreading the message, it extends to thinking up innovative new solutions that drive action. 

“Last year’s Contract for Change was an amazing piece of work by AB InBev where the brand actually put a contract in place with the farming supply chain in the US to insource their supply chain back into America, creating jobs for Americans but also committing to buying their product at a set price at the end of the three years,” explained Lungley.  

She stresses that the contract in the campaign was so important as it costs a lot for farmers to switch to organic farming and having a guaranteed customer at the end of the three years enabled the switch to actually happen.

“It was so logical for AB InBev as a beer company to be connected to that supply chain and those farmers, it didn't feel like purpose marketing because it was so clear the business benefit,” she says.  

The example shows how the industry can align to create meaningful change. Lungley says that the campaign “Is a product of creative, it's not just a story, it's a tangible product with tangible outcomes. The creative service line is absolutely critical, then partner with media to get the stories into every home and every market.”

Purpose beyond greenwashing

Lungley champions Cannes as a celebration of the best creative work. Last year she sat on the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Jury and she remarked on the absence last year “of entries in some of the SDG categories. Particularly SDG 12 which is all about sustainability and production. As an industry that drives consumption, it felt like a huge missed opportunity.”

Yet, teams at denstu are incorporating the SDGs into their entire creative strategy making it a crucial encompassing pillar. Lungley adds that this shift is mirrored by Cannes Lions, which is “making it that all awards, not just SDG categories are measured based on impact and outcomes”, a positive shift. 

“This year they changed the way they judged awards putting a lot more emphasis on the outcome and the impact of the work, not just the creative and the narrative. That's the shift from purpose marketing to a real campaign that's going to drive sustainable outcomes.” With consumers savvy to purpose-washed or greenwashed campaigns, creating something that makes business sense resonates.  

“Consumers know they want to live differently which is linked to performance, the way that we design media campaigns, designing out waste, the attention economy that's all linked to performance so those two things don't need to be mutually exclusive,” she adds. The industry is already designed in a way in which sustainability can flourish, so making work that makes sense and being creative is what will continue to drive the best results.

Putting into action

While it is clear the industry is poised to make a positive impact, sustainability remains a daunting concept for many. “Environmental sustainability is a very complex subject matter, it is science-based and therefore can be challenging to communicate,” says Lungley. She believes that the industry needs to focus on education and concentrate on using inclusive language that is accessible to all.

“Working for BT we had a programme called Speaking With One Voice where we would review board papers that were incomprehensible. We often used the environmental board papers as examples. It reinforces the need to break down that language” 

Often goals are written for policymakers and are too complicated for people to understand which means people don’t know how to apply them. As part of dentsu’s work with the UN, the agency has worked to break down the SDG goals and focus on the 9 sustainable behaviours. “Behaviour that brands can influence and consumers can change. Things you can do in everyday life, regardless of sector. Move to plant-based food, reduce, reuse, recycle, support women and girls - simple things that people can understand and integrate into their ways of working and ways of thinking.” explains Lungley.

As a founding member of AdNetZero denstu is hoping to push for collective industry change that puts sustainability high on the agenda. The agency was one of the first to have an approved science-based Net Zero target and this week the agency announced that it is officially carbon neutral which Anna hopes will show that there is no need to wait to try and achieve targets; “You don't need to wait 10 years to 2030, you can take rapid action today.” 

“We have integrated sustainability into everything, corporate finance is linked to ESG. £500m of revolving credit facility is linked to ESG, our executive incentive scheme, our bonuses are hardwired to ESG that includes both carbon reduction targets and gender targets.” she explains. 

In order to create an environment for collaboration where everyone can move toward a more sustainable future, the industry needs to work together. As Lungley explains: “Jake Dubbins from the Conscious Advertising Network always talks about the fact that it's time to pick a side and I think the industry needs to start having tough conversations. Where the dial has to shift is looking at the bigger breakthrough that we can create, we’ve resigned clients that we don’t think are aligned to our values and the vision that we have for us as a society.”

As the climate crisis is the biggest challenge this generation faces, now is the time for the industry to come together, educate one another and use its creative superpower to work toward making the significant change which is within its creative gift.

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