Close-Up: Live issue - Are agencies ready to turn back tide of consumerism?

Applied Green pointed an accusing finger at advertising, but agreed the ad industry could make consumers change their ways.

Last week's Applied Green conference kicked off in a fiery manner with the first of the A-list celebrity green thinkers immediately sticking the knife in to the ad industry. "You are all the children of Victor Lebow," Jonathan Porritt, the founder of the Forum for the Future and the chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, said. He wasn't paying adland a compliment.

Porritt went on to blame the economist for encouraging generations of marketers to use their talents to persuade customers to "consume, burn up, throw out, replace and discard products at an ever increasing rate", since he wrote in 1955 that the economy demands we make consumption a way of life.

"Much of your profession is still involved in persuading people to do precisely that," Porritt barked. "That's where a lot of your fees come from, your income comes from, your kudos comes from. That's where a lot of your clients would like you to be taking them. That's your world. You made it. You're in it. And you've got to get out of it."

Porritt's words hit home quickly that advertising is one of the easiest targets for anyone looking for culpability in the green debate. However, he and his fellow speakers stressed the huge opportunity that the debate provides the marketing industry - an opportunity to contribute positively to the unfolding of events. As one of the biggest and most complex communications challenges the world has ever faced, clients and governments are crying out for trusted advisors who can help them engage audiences.

Agencies, Porritt argued, are perfectly placed to be those trusted voices. "The advice you can bring to bear on properly engaging with the consumer is really crucial. Consumers are very good at declaring how passionately they feel about these things, but are slightly less good at consuming as if they mean it," he said.

This lack of enthusiasm for green consumerism is partly because of the sector's grungy, tree-hugging, worthy image. It is in dire need of a makeover. How to do this proved a major bone of contention.

Jon Gisby, the former vice-president of media and communications for Yahoo!, sparked the most controversy when he suggested that the brief is such a tough one, agencies must adopt a much more aggressive communications style to shock the public out of its apathy.

"Consider the brief," he said. "You've got to stop consumers consuming stuff and doing things they enjoy. You've got to tell them that it's because of science. And, you've got to explain to them that they've got to do this to avert a crisis that may, or may not, affect them."

Given that the industry has found it hard to make a dent on the obesity issue, where individual actions are directly linked to health, Gisby said getting consumers to go green calls for an entirely new marketing lexicon. Scientific, boredom-inducing phrases such as "carbon neutral", "greenhouse gas" and "global warming" need to be replaced by much more emotive language.

"Think about words like 'poisoning', 'addiction' and 'cruelty'. Think of the fur trade and how that consumption has been stigmatised. What is the carbon equivalent of a fur coat? A frequent flyer card? A poorly insulated house? A 'Chelsea tractor'? Think of the emotions that animal campaigners rouse in the vivisection debate. We're not tapping into that language. I don't know if it's right to, but I'm putting the challenge down. Should we? How could it work?" he asked.

We shouldn't and it can't was the resounding response from his fellow speakers. "People learn more when they're laughing. If we get too serious, people switch off," David Hieatt, the co-founder of the ethical clothing brand Howies, said.

Naresh Ramchandani, the co-founder and joint creative partner at Karmarama, agreed: "It's hard to change behaviour if you're too gloomy. Going green needs to shift from a citizen obligation to a consumer desire." Philip Gould, the founder of Philip Gould Associates, added: "There's no point criticising, as Porritt did, the public's obsession with consumerism. Most people work very hard and want the best for their lives. We have to respect people and their aspirations. If we don't, we will only meet with resentment at every level. There has to be optimism."

But more worrying than consumer lethargy is the growing cynicism among the public for all claims green. This cynicism is reflected in the Advertising Standards Authority's revelation that it received 93 complaints about 40 ads making green claims in September, compared with only ten for eight ads in the same month last year. So how can brands avoid being tarnished by the "greenwashing" brush?

According to Clare Allman, the marketing manager of the eco-friendly cleaning brand Ecover, the only solution is to be green to the core, not just at the fringes. This is not easy, even for a brand that has built its entire foundations on being environmentally friendly.

What all the speakers agreed on was the opportunity the growing interest in sustainability offered agencies and their clients, not just in communications, but in wider marketing strategies, including product design and development.

Forward-thinking brands, such as Howies, are already starting to do this by, for example, sourcing metal from car scrap heaps from which to make their jean buttons. Howies is also trying to make durable materials desirable by boasting that its clothes will last for ten years, and pledging to repair them free of charge if they don't. "In the past ten years, all the green stuff has looked terrible. We've got to start doing what Apple does," Hieatt said.

But so far, most brands and their agencies have made this debate too simplistic. It's not as straightforward as sticking a green label on a packet, as a glut of brands are doing. The best advice agencies can give at this stage, the Eurostar marketing director and conference sponsor Greg Nugent argued, is not to succumb to the "obvious temptation to rush in and make some 'green ads'". (Although, given that half the audience admitted they were currently working on a "green brief", this advice is unlikely to be heeded for now).

"We've an opportunity to lead, but we've got to think it through for the long term," Nugent said.

However, before agencies can start advising clients, they need to get their own houses in order. There are increasing murmurs, too, from clients, such as Marc Sands, The Guardian's marketing director, who was also speaking, that they will favour agencies with a good green record.

Porritt, the biggest-hitting green thinker at the conference, left with these words: "You're in an interesting position. Clients come to you as the fount of all knowledge. They might genuinely believe that your advice is going to be worth something. The crunch issue for you is that if you haven't been down that journey yourself, your advice is worth sod all. After all, do you really think you've got any right to advise anyone else on any of this if you haven't got your own act sorted?"

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