Close-Up: Is sustainability an advertising issue?

Clients' desire to be seen to be green is fuelling the sustainability sector, Caroline Lovell writes.

When Sir Stuart Rose, Marks & Spencer's chairman, launched Plan A, he did it not because he was a raging eco-warrior, but to differentiate the company from its competitors. The same could be said for Havas Media's decision to launch a global sustainability framework, Sustainable Futures 09, last week.

To the cynical, the framework's measurement tool, the Sustainability Futures Quotient, could seem like a gimmick. But to others, the tool, which aims to measure the impact of a brand's use of capital on consumer perceptions, is a clever business move.

Not only does the global service require minimal resources, as its existing agencies will use the framework to define their own local offerings, but it sets out Havas Media's stall as player in the sustainability debate.

For them, sustainability is an ad issue because in the near future, consumers' purchasing decisions will be increasingly based on social and environmental criteria.

Kavita Maharaj, the Havas group director of global corporate relationships, says: "Havas is not telling companies how to be more sustainable. We are saying at the moment you have a lot of companies spending time, energy and resources in CSR, product and evaluation, and marketing and communication. But very few know how much of those activities are sticking with the consumer. This framework allows us to determine how much of those resources and endeavours are in the consumer's mind."

Euro RSCG London, a Havas agency, produced a research project, It's Not Easy Being Green, which found 71 per cent of UK consumers believed companies bear as much responsibility for creating social change as the Government.

However, the study also found that consumers did not trust advertisers' green messages, with automotive and petrol companies coming in for particular criticism.

Advertisers from British Gas to Shell have been keen to emphasise their green credentials in recent campaigns, but with MPs demanding that the Advertising Standards Authority clamp down on misleading environmental claims, the issue of joining up advertising claims with reality is becoming a hot topic.

Nevertheless, Sustain (the alliance for better food and farming) says that consumers want brands and companies to take the lead on tackling environmental and social issues on their behalf. The issue of sustainability may be forced on adland whether it is ready or not.

But Clownfish, a sustainability and communications consultancy owned by Aegis, argues that ad agencies cannot offer the technical expertise to ensure that communications are credible and are underpinned by robust proof points.

Becky Willan, Clownfish's head of strategy, says: "Ad agencies often lack the expertise needed to ensure that there is alignment between a client's corporate practices and external communications."

When Mike Barry, M&S's head of sustainable business, talks about its five-year, 100-point eco-plan, Plan A, he claims it helps M&S to innovate, create new business opportunities and prepare the business for the legislative pressures of the future. A similar sustainable driver could be used by advertising agencies to help brands innovate.

In terms of making money, research shows that having a CSR programme can lead to a competitive advantage. That's not to say that having a sustainability tool is going to be a huge new revenue stream for agencies, but having a good understanding of consumer attitudes towards sustainability and the environment places agencies in a good position when it comes to new business. That's what Havas will be hoping, anyway.

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LOBBYIST - Kath Dalmeny, policy director, Sustain (the alliance for better food and farming)

"Sustainability is here to stay. It's crucial that advertising agencies give the right advice.

"It is incredibly important for marketing messages about sustainability to have integrity. Everything we've learnt in the food world about sustainability says customers need to trust their relationship with the business. But we've also seen a proliferation of companies making dodgy claims on sustainability, stealing the goodwill that's been built by genuine sustainable activities.

"People want to feel that companies are working on their behalf to tackle problems that are much bigger than individuals, like ethical trade and climate change."

CONSULTANCY - Becky Willan, head of strategy, Clownfish

"We're facing a changing business environment and consumer landscape, in which sustainability plays an increasingly important role, so it's inevitable ad agencies will encounter sustainability as part of their clients' briefs.

"Sustainability needs great ideas to get people to change their behaviour and to communicate things that are not always straight forward - advertising has a lot of these skills. But it also needs technical expertise.

"When working with clients, Clownfish looks behind the brief, into the brand's environmental, social and economic impacts. Advertising agencies don't have the same requirement - this is a specialist technical process."

CLIENT - Mike Barry, head of sustainable business, Marks & Spencer

"Sustainability is a huge business opportunity for marketing and communications.

"There are 60 million consumers, who need to recognise there are challenges in the future, there is a need to live differently, and we can do it in a positive way that is better than the old way. But sustainability is a complicated message to communicate, as it can be very scientific, technical and dry if you are not careful.

"M&S has always been clear and honest with our communications. Our customers want M&S to take the lead on environmental and social issues on their behalf; they want to know what we're doing and involve them when it is important."

CREATIVE AGENCY - Russ Lidstone, managing partner and chief strategy officer, Euro RSCG London

"Agencies should be involved in looking at sustainability. Not only should we be looking at it from the perspective of our clients in order for them to gain a competitive advantage, we should try to be better corporate citizens.

"But it's not just about looking at sustainability and trying to shoehorn messages into communications; it's about having a broader perspective and understanding on how communications might have a role in that environment.

"Sustainability is about three things: people, planet and profit. In order for people to be focused on sustainability, they need to do so with a commercial mindset."