Can sustainability and advertising be friends?

I’ve made sustainability fundamental to my lifestyle choices. So, working in advertising can sometimes make me question my career choice. Why? Look around you at ads and you see most ads trying to make you buy “larger”, “bigger”, “newer” products which can actually increase your carbon footprint.

A  ‘Badvertising’ report from The New Weather Institute from 2020 “pins the scarlet letter of public shame firmly on advertising, demanding it be controlled, changed, reduced, even eradicated. It states that advertising’s role as an accelerator of materialism, consumption and climate catastrophe means it is no longer viable.”

Ads that promote fast food, fast fashion, and delivery even if you only order a single chocolate bar (imagine the packing, fuel used for that delivery!) are promoting choices that are often detrimental to the planet.

And then there are brands and ads that are accused of “greenwashing”. Kantar recently pointed out that “Environmental and social challenges are defining issues of our age. People worldwide expect businesses and governments to take responsibility and address them. Brands, therefore, have an important role to play, yet many have been accused of greenwashing or jumping on the bandwagon.

The number of ads that address social and environmental issues has tripled since 2016, but consumers aren’t convinced of brands’ intentions. In fact, 64% of people globally worry that brands are involved in these issues for profit only. “

Grim and grimmer indeed.

As I read more about advertising and sustainability, an academic paper held a sliver of hope as it pointed out :

What can marketing offer sustainability? In looking to answer this question attention is focused on the role of marketing in understanding and changing consumer behaviour and more generally in influencing attitudes and beliefs. As such marketing can be seen to recognize the key role of consumers as decision-makers in moving towards sustainability, for example in
reducing carbon dioxide emissions, recycling increasing volumes of waste, supporting
Fair Trade initiatives and adopting healthier lifestyles”

What then can the average media planner do:

(1) research the product being advertised and ensure that if the brand/product is making sustainability claims, these are authentic and not “greenwashing”

(2) stay abreast of developments in the field. Sustainability is being discussed, debated and guidelines are being developed for marketing and advertising.

“Now, new landmark global guidance aims to solve this issue, giving brands a framework to ensure assertions they make around the environment are credible.

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) has worked with global regulators and brand leaders to publish six recommendations designed to build consumer trust. The principles have also been designed to help brands avoid accusations of greenwashing, which is when a company purports to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but isn’t really making any notable sustainability efforts.

Key points include ensuring environmental claims don’t “mislead” consumers and that “marketers must hold robust evidence for all claims made.” Other advice is centred around checking that marketing communications don’t omit material information or make general statements about only part of a product’s lifecycle.”

(3) more brands than ever before are committing to reducing the use of plastic packaging, and environmentally unfriendly ingredients / raw material. Look up the norms for the category you’re working on and ensure the brand communicates its position to consumers.

(4) if you’re uncomfortable working on a brand because it goes against your core beliefs, communicate to your management and if needed change your place of work. Large and small brands alike are moving towards incorporating sustainability as a core value driving their decisions so you won’t be short of choice on brands you can work on.

(5) revisit your media choices based on their impact on the environment e.g what’s the impact that large backlit billboards or newspaper jackets/inserts (extremely popular in India), the wastage and rubbish generated by that on-ground event to promote the product and how can you minimize that.

(6) talk about the sustainability impact of your campaigns as part of your award entries (assuming the impact has been positive and can be proven to be so!). Yes, this is self-promotion but helps put the effort front and centre and can help normalize talking about sustainability as part of campaign results. Not just as part of the “for good” category but ALL categories.

Sustainability and advertising today may look like strange partners but if we want to drive sustainability as an aspirational lifestyle, advertising is a powerful way to do this. Because let’s admit it, ads are often a lot more interesting, impactful and significantly less preachy than a lot of material out there. Here’s my favourite example – though this one’s on climate change and therefore indirectly on sustainability.

Let me know if this one chilled you with its dark, dark humour.


Marketing and sustainability

Adweek Podcast: Who’s Standing Up for Sustainability?

Landmark global guidance encourages advertisers to ensure assertions are robust

Badvertising – stop adverts fuelling the climate emergency

Research from Kantar and Affectiva 

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