How seriously is the industry taking sustainability?
Ahead of Cannes, WFA asked leading trade press editors to rank the industry on how they're responding to the sustainability challenge
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From top-left, clockwise: Michaela Jefferson (Marketing Week), Anna Hamill (Warc), Stephen Lepitak (AdWeek), Joe Mandese (MediaPost).
How seriously are advertisers and agencies taking sustainability? What’s holding them back? How would you like to see marketing evolve so that it does go beyond simply driving consumption? Who do you think is making real strides to deliver both in terms of their marketing but also their fundamental business model? These are some of the questions the editors were invited to respond to.
Michaela Jefferson, News Editor, Marketing Week
“How seriously are advertisers taking sustainability? On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say 7. In all the conversations I have with marketers, sustainability is clearly a point of focus. And we’re seeing some great initiatives around media planning, product development and new ways of communicating sustainability to consumers.
But no matter how good the intentions are, there is an unwillingness to accept that this isn’t enough. I have to agree with Dole Sunshine, CMO Rupen Desai, when he says that modern marketing is incompatible with a sustainable world.
Why? Because marketing is still all about profit. It’s about persuading consumers to consume. It’s about giving material items emotional weight, it’s about upsizing products to create the illusion of value, it’s about justifying higher prices via unnecessary packaging, and it’s about telling consumers they need to buy more to be happy.
Profit and sustainability absolutely can co-exist – we see that in brands like Patagonia. But only if businesses reject profit at all costs. Help consumers make better choices by normalising re-use, make sustainable products more affordable, focus on quality and repairs. Tell consumers to consume better, not more.
If your business won’t take this seriously, take your talent elsewhere.”
Anna Hamill, Senior Editor - Brands, Warc
“Brands understand that the time for real action on the environment and climate change is long past due. Demand for best practice on sustainability has been so high that WARC launched a Sustainability Hub recently.
Delivering is hard, but brand leaders also know it’s imperative and how they deal with this issue will impact brand perceptions. That makes it commercially vital too.
There are reasons for optimism, however. Brands big and small are starting to make major changes, not just in the consumer-facing parts of the business, but the less visible parts as well.
Many are now looking to act as thoughtful players on social, cultural and environmental issues, rather than just churning out profits. They are more open to challenging their own processes to make a positive difference in the world.
All this is helped by consumer demands for more accountability. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so the saying goes, and brands will need to develop tangible action plans with a clear measurement of impact to be taken seriously.
Resale models are emerging as major opportunities and companies such as IKEA, Farfetch and Depop are embracing the circular economy. Progress is being made.”
Stephen Lepitak, Europe Bureau Chief, Adweek
“The term greenwashing exists for a reason. It applies to advertising that makes greater sustainability claims around a brand than is the truth, and it has become increasingly prevalent in the last year.
Companies have never faced more scrutiny over their impact on the planet. And while there has been some progress, as COP26 in Glasgow showcased last winter, it hasn’t been anywhere near enough to prevent the “atlas of human suffering” that UN secretary general Antonio Guterres described after reading a February report on the impacts of climate change.
Marketers have a responsibility to discuss their part in this conversation to help change public attitudes and transform their own businesses to reduce climate impact. As such, sustainability is a vital topic to explore during this year’s Cannes Lions. But if it follows in the industry’s tradition of greenwashing – draping environmentally-friendly terms around brands and agencies making only the smallest of changes – that will do more harm than good.
The time to act was yesterday. What will you do today?”
Joe Mandese, Editor-in-Chief, MediaPost
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate agency holding companies and Fortune 500 at a seven. The long tail of advertisers, however, get a collective four.
Many big brands and agencies are now much more committed but are still uncertain about how to message. Generally, they are doing a better job internally (setting up net zero cultures and goals) and even adapting supply chain solutions (think carbon offsets).
The biggest thing holding them back is prioritization, other issues including economics, social justice and DEI also demand time in the spotlight.
I’d like to see marketers adopt a model based on carbon offsets: For every unsustainable thing a marketer does, they should offset it in some way with something more virtuous.
Brands should also publicly disclose the impact of their products and services via the equivalent of "nutrition labels" or at least via an annual report. That would encourage them to create products/services and marketing that has a positive impact.
As an outdoor equipment enthusiast, I've always admired both Patagonia's and REI's business models. Both offer consumers the ability to trade old garments and gear for credits and encourage repair, creating a sense of self-reliance as well as sustainability.”