Question of the Week

How Brands and Agencies Can really make a difference on sustainability

As Davos wrestles - again - with the challenges of the climate crisis, it's time for the industry to cut the grand gestures and truly catalyse transformative change

By Dani Gibson

As the World Economic Forum unfolds in Davos, spotlighting AI and misinformation, conflicts in Ukraine, Taiwan, and the Middle East, one perennial topic remains at the forefront of discussion: sustainability.

New reports highlight an alarming acceleration in the Greenland ice cap's ice loss at 30 million tonnes per hour due to the climate crisis. This poses concerns for the weakened Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (Amoc), crucial for global weather patterns, ecosystems, and food security. In Davos this week PepsiCo Inc.'s CEO, Ramon Laguarta, stressed the responsibility of major corporations to integrate innovative technologies for sustainable products without added consumer costs. Meanwhile HCL Technologies' global head of sustainability, Santhosh Jayaram, actively advocated for technology in accelerating the sustainability agenda at Davos, underlining the urgent need for a swift response to shape our sustainable future.

This urgency to address global warming and curb severe weather events is underscored by scientists' warnings. It propels the discourse in 2024 towards immediate implementation rather than mere rhetoric.

In this context, the significance of communications and advertising in advancing sustainability becomes apparent. Questions about client awareness, the demand for sustainable practices, measuring impact, and agency aspirations become pivotal. A recent UN report unequivocally calls for comprehensive climate action, emphasising the need for urgent, widespread measures.

So what role can agencies and brands play right now?

Dan Tendler, strategy director, VML

It's easy to be a bit cynical at the WEF, where billionaires fly private jets obscenely short distances to discuss climate change. But any event shining a light on what can be done to secure a future without breaching the 1.5°c climate threshold is one not to be ignored.

“Solving our planet is now a communications challenge,” said the legendary David Attenborough. So, if that is the challenge, with the ultimate prize, then there should be no one better placed to make a difference than our industry. Who knows more about how to effectively seed ideas into the public realm, to change minds - and more importantly change behaviours - than we do?

I don’t think telling the world how 'green' our clients are is exactly what Attenborough had in mind, but lucky for us, there are more concrete things we can do.

Firstly, making sure that everything we put out into the world, (whether overtly linked to sustainability or not), shows the future we want to live in. Visualising sustainable ways to do things, or to use products.

Secondly, always looking for opportunities to drive more sustainable consumer behaviours. For example, encouraging people to use products for longer, or dispose/replace in a more responsible manner. And from a client's point of view - hero'ing cross/upsells that don't drive new emissions.

And finally, where we can, to partner with our clients to help push their own business forwards, towards a lower climate future. To recommend new revenue streams that don't cost the earth, and potentially remove or tweak others that do.

Given we spend every day working on client briefs, the potential scope for making changes and legitimately playing our part in solving the climate crisis is huge. Over to us, I guess!

Graham Reid, SVP, head of sustainability, Weber Shandwick

As urgency has grown in the face of the climate crisis, best practice sustainability communications has gone through an evolution from ‘tell everyone how my brand leads’ or ‘here’s my new, green product’ to ‘here’s how we’re making progress, let’s make common progress against this challenge’. This takes many forms – from sharing new technologies in packaging and circularity, to driving consumer behaviour change through engaging advertising campaigns.

When it comes to milestone moments such as COP or Davos 2024, strong stakeholder relations is imperative. COP showed that the world has run out of patience with sustainability procrastination and Davos attendees – whether world leaders, business leaders or civil society – must spend their time in the Swiss mountains with a clear constructive agenda and a willingness to collaborate. Strong sustainability communications through this lens is about bringing groups together around a common idea and accelerating progress in the face of major societal challenges.

Measurement is absolutely crucial. In the EU, reporting requirements such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) will demand as much and, for communicators, measurement is vital for providing the strong proof points on progress. For businesses of all sizes, understanding your impact on the world, and the areas that you can reduce it, will continue to be important for communications too. Sustainability in business is no longer a first-mover advantage, it is an expectation from consumers and being able to prove your credentials is important, whether through consumer campaigns, stakeholder engagement programmes or advertising.

In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is, rightly, moving strongly against greenwashing and a number of brands have been pulled out on this topic over recent months. An important part of getting this right is setting your own brands’ progress in context e.g. what is the 10% reduction in relation to all your other products, or the industry? How does that ‘green’ investment stack up against your other investments? These are all things that all audiences are looking at, and strong measurement is imperative to navigate this landscape.

Our team of global experts is supporting clients across sectors as they navigate a changing regulatory and stakeholder environment—mitigating risks and seizing opportunities to lead on sustainability solutions. We’re proud to help our clients communicate progress in this area and through our campaigns drive climate advocacy and awareness.

Alex Lewis, founder, Revolt

The World Economic Forum’s annual risk report launched this month, warning that environmental risks could hit the point of no return. Not only do they pose serious concerns for 2024 but perceived risk increases as those in leadership roles look forwards to 2-year and 10-year horizons where half of the most critical risks are environmental. At Davos, there are three key agendas that participating purposeful brands should be driving…

The first is to demonstrate that this is the era of ‘transformation’, not ‘adjustment’. It’s a pragmatic argument based in a clear assessment of the situation. Compliance – rising to the minimum standard – simply won’t be enough to address our shared challenges, only a transformation as revolutionary as the digital one of previous decades can take us where we need to go. This is a ‘good news’ story, because it is bold action that will unlock the real value of new technologies, leaps in efficiency and a world where humanity can thrive.

Second, brands need to make sure Davos is less ‘talking shop’ and more ‘accelerator for action’. The old ways of doing things are broken and we need better business models and novel solutions. Business has the power to bring these to scale using their investment, influence and powerful storytelling to drive many of the changes we need to see. Efforts at Davos should enable partnership, innovation and alignment between those working to change the same systems.

Finally, there’s an opportunity to support the professionalisation of purposeful business. As increasing amounts are invested into simultaneously solving the world’s problems and building brands, effective impact accounting, measurement and reporting will be increasingly important, not only to ensure money is well spent but also to help us all discover the most effective solutions so they can be rapidly deployed.

Mary Pollard, executive director, sustainability, social impact and purpose, Edelman

Communicating about sustainability for clients is more than just an opportunity to do good in the world, it’s also one of the toughest and most stimulating creative challenges agencies face.

The early conversation on sustainability was too often characterised by stark warnings to gather attention and try to build a consensus - but now our research has shown people are looking for stories of progress and reasons for optimism as we try to work together to avoid the worst of climate change’s devastating potential. This calls for new creative and collaborative approaches to make the complex into the compelling. We must work with clients to find the most powerful ideas that drive action and earn trust.

And measurement needs to broaden its focus once again, striving to track the often elusive societal and commercial impact of our campaigns. In my view, there has never been a more exciting time to be in communications as sustainability becomes truly integrated into all our engagement efforts, at last.

Pedro Martins, chief growth officer, Total Media

ESG is, and should be, at the forefront of everything a company does. While profitability is essential, we have a responsibility to our employees, clients, and the global community to deliver sustainable practices. At Total Media Group, we are signatories to the Government’s carbon neutral plan and have developed an ethos across all our companies, of not just meeting required ESG standards, especially those set out by the government and our B Corp accreditation, but exceeding them. We achieved Carbon Neutrality eight years ahead of the ad net zero targets and were pioneers in offering carbon-neutral campaigns to our clients. Our continuous ambition and commitment is to position ourselves as leaders in this space.

In the past year, we've undertaken various initiatives such as changing our website to green servers, setting new reduction targets for waste alongside regularly tracking our energy use, and recycling our coffee granules through B Corp Bio-Beans, alongside offsetting any remaining carbon through Gold Standard projects picked by our people. Within our group, the inclusion of 'Behave', our behavioural science consultancy, empowers us to leverage behavioural science to influence change, such as societal norms within our office. A simple example is the transformation of 'general waste' signs to 'landfill', emphasising where our waste ends up. All of which has contributed to the reduction of our scope 3 emissions.

Jonny White, senior business director and AMV X Green lead

The advertising industry has a responsibility to help tackle climate change and the power to support behaviour change. We should use our creativity to drive positive change – promoting more sustainable products, services and behaviours. While marketers are finally starting to grasp the scale of the sustainability challenge there remains a knowledge and skills gap, driven by its complexity and the fact sustainability sits across multiple functions in an organisation.

At AMV almost all our clients are talking to us about sustainability. From recycling to regenerative farming and composting to coral reefs. Each brand is at a different stage of their sustainable journey, from seeking help with messaging to communicate what they’re doing (while avoiding claims of greenwashing) to developing consuming facing comms. Measurement is integral to assess the impact of these initiatives (on both the brand and the planet), to show how successful they are and to help with securing investment for future sustainability work.

We work with Currys, who as the UK’s number 1 tech recycler are trying to make e-waste recycling as accessible and easy for the majority, with initiatives like Cash for Trash (bring any old or broken tech into Currys to be recycled and get a £5 voucher in return). We worked with them on this from strategy through to execution and assessing the impact of this work, which was recognised at Campaign’s Ad Net Zero awards last year.

Sustainability is a complex topic and therefore to help our teams navigate it, the AMV X Green team facilitates agency training, provides access to the right experts to partner with and collaborates with industry bodies to ensure we stay at the forefront, from the latest in regulation to sustainable production methods.


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