Sustainability: Green works

With increasing numbers of consumers interested in environmental issues, brands can benefit from advertising their green credentials. However, those that talk the talk must be able to back up their green image, Lucy Aitken says.

Carbon dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life," an ad from the Competitive Enterprise Institute in America spouted. Financed by the likes of Exxon Mobil, Ford and General Motors, the ad was dismissed by The Economist as "daft".

And this is precisely the problem many companies face when they are considering a more green approach to their advertising: they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. No-one wants to be accused of tokenism, preaching or piety; nor do they want their competitors to think they have gone soft.

Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that there is a tangible business benefit to be gained by "greenifying" advertising - but only if it is a genuine message and not "green-wash".

Those companies that have changed their businesses to operate more sustainably (and which have successfully managed to communicate those changes to consumers) are reaping the rewards. For example, the reaction to Marks & Spencer's "look behind the label" campaign has been overwhelmingly positive.

When "look behind the label" launched, M&S's chief executive, Stuart Rose, said: "Customers care more than ever about how products are made." That level of concern is only going to rise as ethical factors figure more prominently in their choice of which brands to buy.

A 2005 Ethical Consumerism Report, conducted by the Co-operative Bank, NEF and The Future Foundation, revealed 57 per cent of consumers had recommended a company on the basis of its responsible reputation. Figures from the Co-op also show that consumers spent £25.8 billion on ethical goods and services in 2004 - an increase of 15 per cent on 2003 - and this figure will continue to enjoy double-digit growth.

This summer, consumers are seeing for themselves the effects of climate change. Droughts, rising fuel prices and more media coverage of green issues have all served as triggers for people to reassess their behaviour. Now they will think twice before automatically filling up the petrol tank or having a long, hot soak in the bath instead of a quick shower. If individuals are taking responsibility for their own actions, it is no surprise that they want to seek out companies and brands that are making an effort to do the same.

So how should those companies engage with this growing band of consumers? Well, for a start, doom and gloom get you nowhere. Mark McKenzie, a partner at Futerra Sustainability Communications, says: "People tire under a constant barrage of dreary 'we're all gonna die' or 'we're all selfish and evil' messages. It tends to result in inaction and apathy. There is a huge opportunity for advertising to use humour and irony to change public attitudes and behaviour in relation to issues such as climate change."

With business-to-business advertising, the emphasis should be on the financial gain synonymous with being more carbon-aware, particularly for smaller organisations. And regardless of whether an ad targets businesses or consumers, the fear factor should always make way for optimism, McKenzie counsels. Sue Welland, the co-founder of The CarbonNeutral Company, agrees. She is a big fan of Honda's "hate something, change something" campaign and believes "animation would help to make the message much lighter".

Most importantly, any advertiser considering going green needs to protect itself against its critics by embracing sustainability internally too, otherwise their critics will have a field day.

By way of an example, it comes as no surprise that Ed Matthew, the corporate accountability campaigner at Friends of the Earth, derides energy companies' advertising. He fumes: "BP and Shell spend colossal amounts of money on green advertising, but they are not green companies - less than 2 per cent of their annual investment each year is in renewable energy sources."

Accusations of green-wash will continue to be volleyed at energy companies for as long as they continue to make their billions from the planet's dwindling supply of fossil fuels. For many other companies, there still exists a mindset that being a sustainable business is not compatible with business objectives. But, as evangelical leaders such as James Murdoch at Sky and Sir John Bond at HSBC are proving, it doesn't have to be that way.

Giles Hedger, the joint planning partner at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, believes that a shift in attitude is required if green advertising is ever going to be regarded as contributing to, rather than obstructing, corporate objectives. He comments: "One of the reasons why sustainable marketing strategies often stumble in the boardroom is that it has traditionally been difficult to articulate their extrinsic value. A new value system is required, which recognises that the ultimate end is where the value lies; namely, a sustainable future for business and the planet."

Companies such as M&S and General Electric are already demonstrating that, by investing in green products and communicating the benefits to consumers, sustainability and profit needn't be awkward bedfellows. With any luck, more advertisers will follow.



Sir John Bond, the HSBC group chairman, speaking at the launch in April 2004 of The Climate Group, said: "Climate change ... will have an impact on all aspects of modern life. It is a major issue for every organisation on the planet." HSBC is committed to reducing its own carbon dioxide emissions by 5 per cent by 2007 and aims to offset what it cannot reduce. Because of this commitment, it is entirely appropriate that it should use wind farms in its "your point of view" campaign, created by JWT. The campaign primarily uses TV, print and posters to drive consumers to to join the debate.

The expert's view: "It's always interesting when a global company integrates climate change into the way it does business. It's a good move for HSBC." (Sue Welland, co-founder, The CarbonNeutral Company)


BP's "beyond petroleum" campaign has been one of the most high-profile on climate change. By keeping up a presence in international business titles such as The Economist, it is talking to a highly influential crowd. Fiona Gordon, the managing partner, BP, at Ogilvy & Mather, the agency responsible for the campaign, says: "BP does not believe it has all the answers, but it is taking steps to live up to its brand aspirations."

The expert's view: "While some are cynical of BP's campaign, if it helps to tune in the public to the urgency of climate chaos as the biggest threat to our lifestyles, then others would say it can't be such a bad thing." (Jules Peck, global policy advisor, WWF)


Martin Campiche, General Electric's general manager, marketing, EMEA and Latin America, says GE developed "eco-imagination" as a business strategy: "Our customers had asked us to develop more environmentally friendly technologies. 'Eco-imagination' helps us to respond to their challenges." The advertising, by BBDO, generated such a response that GE is working flat-out to meet demand for its green technologies.

The expert's view: "There's too much doom-mongering around climate change, so respect for an optimistic campaign that focuses on solutions. Clean and crisp, slickly corporate and bonus points for avoiding hackneyed green imagery." (Mark McKenzie, partner, Futerra)


Honda's chief engineer hated dirty diesel engines, so he changed them. This integrated campaign, by Wieden & Kennedy London, communicates Honda's commitment to the environment - in Japan, there is no landfill waste as a consequence of car manufacturing and Honda over-delivers on environmental legislation. The campaign's chirpy tone has paid dividends. Traffic to Honda's website increased by 43 per cent and Honda enjoyed a 62 per cent increase in spontaneous brand awareness. Oh, and it has won awards galore.

The expert's view: "Imagine something like 'the power of dreams' idea applied specifically to low-carbon products - it could revolutionise the way consumers think about their own ability to help combat climate change." (Sophy Bristow, project manager, The Climate Group)


Not only has M&S dragged its products into the 21st century and become the darling of the high street again, it's also re-engineered its advertising around the "your M&S" campaign by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R. "Look behind the label" launched on 30 January and informs customers about M&S's sustainable business practices. These include a commitment to Fairtrade products, free-range eggs, sustainable fish and non-GM fresh food. M&S also promotes its easy-care clothes, which use only environmentally friendly dyes.

The expert's view: "M&S has done real things on the ground, so it can put its hand on its heart when it makes these claims. Has it worked? Its share price has rocketed." (John Sauven, communications director, Greenpeace)


Shell has invested $1 billion in the past five years in alternative energies such as wind, hydrogen and advanced solar technology. Since 1999, it has focused communications activity on issues such as biodiversity, human rights and energy, but for the past few years online and print work by Proximity and TV work by JWT has mostly focused on sustainable development. Judy Everett, Shell's corporate identity manager, says: "The advertising is around what we do as a business. People can see for themselves the record of what Shell has been doing in terms of renewable energy and how we are operating in a more sustainable way."

The expert's view: "It's funny that Shell did these ads - you'd think it was a wind energy company. It's odd for an advertiser to promote itself on such a niche part of its business." (John Sauven)


The Carbon Trust, established in 2001, helps UK business and the public sector to reduce carbon emissions. This awareness-raising, integrated campaign is by McCann Erickson. It positions The Carbon Trust as the leading source of knowledge about climate change. Follow-up work includes "the elephant in the board room" print and poster campaign.

The expert's view: "It's hard to engage business on this issue, so every effort must be applauded. The current TV treatment focuses on traditional messages of fear and loss; positive messages might be more effective." (Mark McKenzie)