Sustainability: Can Advertising Save the World?

By Robin Hicks,, Friday, 15 July 2005 12:00AM

Green pressure groups have shifted their focus on to adland to try to bring about environmental responsibility.

There is no polite way to say business is destroying the world," Paul Hawken writes in his oxymoronically titled book The Ecology of Commerce.

"Given existing corporate practices, no wildlife reserve, wilderness or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. The land, water, air and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste."

Tony Blair and other world leaders, despite recent terrorist attacks, have convened a G8 summit which, like the others before it, will likely amount to little more than big promises and back-slapping. The chance to create a sustainable consumer society falls at the feet of businesses and their brands.

A far-fetched assumption? Apparently not, if you listen to consumers.

In a survey (by the online research company Tickbox) commissioned by Campaign last month, 91 per cent of Britons said they trust brands more than politicians, while 64 per cent think brands can solve global problems by getting involved in sustainable projects. Crucially, two-thirds believe brands not only have a role to play, but a responsibility to make society sustainable.

NGOs think so too. The likes of Greenpeace have been blaming big corporations for the over-consumption problem since 1992's Rio Earth Summit. More recently, though, unsatisfied any useful progress had been made, they identified a new villain: the advertising sector.

"We were told we were 'stuck in an 80s time-warp of over-consumption'," Mike Longhurst, the European Association of Communication Agencies' advisor on sustainability and the business development director at McCann Erickson, recalls. "It was no longer the manufacturers' fault but ours, for failing to apply pressure on them."

Ad agencies, the NGOs insisted, should lean on their clients to stop advertising unsustainable products, and the perception was that agencies knew little and cared less about environmental and social issues. "Our critics had little understanding of marketing and advertising realities," Longhurst says, "but, in some senses, they were right about the sector's lack of knowledge of what was becoming a major global issue and one which, sooner or later, would impact their clients."

But a lot has changed since the late 90s, when relations between NGOs and adland could hardly have been worse. The first step towards a detente came when the late Stig Carlson, then the director-general of the EACA, asked McCann Erickson to take on the United Nations Environment Programme as a pro bono client.

McCann agreed. First, the agency ran a global "Pulse" study of young people's attitudes toward sustainable consumption. It then published a brochure, Can sustainability sell?. The brochure, which was mailed to the ad community across Europe, was designed to show adland how social responsibility and sustainability can boost brand image (and it was a nice bit of PR for McCann, too).

The big break, however, came in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. It was a tense affair - NGOs pressed governments for a mandate to rein in advertising to tackle over-consumption. Adland's response had to be credible and thorough.

Longhurst teamed up with Bernhard Adriaensens of the World Federation of Advertisers and sustainability specialists at Procter & Gamble and Unilever. They set themselves a clear target: shift the perception of advertising from being the cause of the problem to part of the solution within two years, or face the ire of green groups.

Their report at the WSSD made many promises. They would hold conferences and launch various projects to give adland the dig in the ribs it needed.

But, Longhurst points out, sustainability is a game in which victories cannot be claimed. Advertising, he says, is forever on trial.

Since then, the EACA has produced a Green Guide and a Code of Ethics for agencies. Its most important publication to date, though, is Opportunity Space, which gives advice on how to turn corporate social responsibility into a business advantage.

Done properly, CSR is a philosophy that underpins everything a company does. It should never be an add-on, not least because NGOs are experts at seeing through superficial attempts to become good corporate citizens.

The big question is: should CSR projects be taken down from corporate websites and flaunted in ad campaigns ("Talking the walk", page 32)?

Interestingly, UNEP thinks so. Solange Montillaud-Joyel, UNEP's associate programme officer, reasons once more brands begin to advertise what they are doing to save the planet, rivals will be forced to follow suit.

Of course, for it to work, consumers have to care whether or not a company is sustainable. The picture is confusing. McCann's Pulse study suggests young people from the 28 countries surveyed are "hedonistic idealists", who want a sustainable world, but don't want to give up the things they like to get it.

Campaign's survey finds the same thing. One in ten Brits say they would not stop buying their favourite brand even if they knew it used sweatshop labour. Yet 95 per cent think green credentials should be communicated through advertising, with 18 per cent claiming they would buy a greener product regardless of price.

The truth is, despite the efforts of UNEP and the EACA, the number of brands brave enough to shout about how green they are remains pitifully small. G8 and talk of climate change and carbon-trading schemes could change that, some think. But if so, are ad agencies best suited for the task?

Ever since the triple bottom line (economic, social and environmental) entered business jargon, sustainability specialists have emerged (a Google search on "sustainability" and "consultancy" throws up 529,000 results).

One of the most respected is Good Brand, set up by the former marketing director of Kraft UK, Dean Sanders. "I don't necessarily see us as a risk to ad agencies," he says. "But then I don't see many agencies straining to seize what is a big strategic planning opportunity. They are set in the historical business paradigm: getting consumers to consume. Yet any good capitalist should see that there is a huge opportunity here - to solve environmental problems in a creative way."


ABB - It's amazing what you save

ABB fancies itself as the Toyota of the power and technology space. A gadget it invented called a variable-speed drive allows a factory to work in a similar way to the hybrid engine in a Toyota Prius: when it's not running at full tilt, it slows down, cutting emissions and saving energy.

In 2002, ABB's global campaign asked: "Can you stop 50 million tons of CO2 from happening?" This summer, ABB is running a similar campaign but, after updating its VSDs, can now tweak the endline to 68 million tons of CO2.

Kia - Think before you drive

Being green was Kia's core proposition when it launched in the UK. Based on the observation that most car trips made are less than a mile, Kia offered a free bike with every sale of its new Sedona. "For long trips, use the Sedona. For short ones, use your loaf," the press ads read. It also launched an initiative to escort children to school, called "the walking bus".

The campaign, by Mustoes, led to Kia taking almost 1 per cent of a bitterly competitive car market. But, unlike Toyota, while Kia's marketing was green, its cars weren't. Now Kia's aggressive sales targets have led to a switch to a price-focused ad strategy.

Toyota - World Food Programme

Think sustainability and Toyota might spring to mind. Indeed, many feel its new status as the world's largest car company is a victory of morality as well as innovation. Yet it is Toyota's long-held relationship with the UN's World Food Programme that has impressed CSR specialists. "Toyota has not been boastful about supplying the WFP with trucks," Longhurst says. "This is a case of putting the brand behind the issue, not the issue behind the brand."

Benetton - James and other apes

When a Benetton print campaign ran in Campaign last October, confused Private Viewer Peter Bazalgette, the chairman of Endemol, wondered if the ads were promoting a strange new boy band. Showing only the faces of apes, their names and a logo, the message could have been clearer.

But - like the Body Shop - such is Benetton's (often controversial) legacy in championing big issues that the campaign soon stirred public interest and gave the plight of the great apes a global platform. The portraits, by the photographer James Mollison, also ran on billboards in major cities.

BP - Beyond petroleum

When BP replaced its shield with a green and yellow sunflower logo in 1999, it told the world it was no longer just in the oil business: it was an energy company that was to go "Beyond Petroleum". Greenpeace was not convinced, accusing BP of spending more on rebranding than exploring renewable energy sources. It dubbed BP "Burning the Planet." Like Exxon Mobil and Shell, BP is still accused of "greenwashing" - posting the largest profits in UK corporate history thanks to rising oil prices didn't help.

DuPont - To do list for the planet

McCann Erickson's makeover of DuPont is a landmark case in how to face a tired old "smokestack" company in a more positive direction. What was a poorly understood chemicals company was reintroduced as an earth sciences pioneer that improves the way we live. The campaign trumpeted DuPont's scientific achievements and aspirations under the hopeful strapline: "To do list for the planet." It worked: share price rose immediately. But, after some bad press, DuPont reverted to a product-focused advertising strategy.

Ben & Jerry's - Lick global warming

If Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield weren't busy dreaming up weird ice-cream flavours, chances are they'd be chaining themselves to oil tankers.

Last April, in protest of an oil drilling project in an Alaskan nature reserve, Ben & Jerry's founders parked a 1,000lb Baked Alaska in front of the US Capital Building, amid chants of: "Don't bake Alaska! Stop global warming!" The stunt was supported by a campaign to "lick global warming" in the Washington Post.

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