It’s a problem as old as advertising itself, much debated in the industry every time one dares unearth the topic: Adland sells stuff. As such, it is intrinsically in Adland’s nature to be utterly and completely unable to reach true sustainability.
I beg to differ.
It is incredibly frustrating to see how we seem to be going in circles every time someone injects something new into the conversation. Debates often rotate around overconsumption, purpose, working with clients, driving change, disrupting the status quo, and yet you need only take a quick trip to the supermarket to realise that all of that is just about paying lip service to one cause or the other. It seems like Adland is truly unable to be sustainable after all. Which begs the question: is it even our battle?
Spoiler: it is.
By the way, how impressive is the header image above? Credits for that masterpiece go to Cheil Central America, with the fantastic Nature of Plastic campaign for Greenpeace.
Image credit: Charis Tsevis
The ‘Myth of Endless Growth’
While doing some research for this piece, I chanced upon an incredibly inspiring podcast by host Stephanie Rosilio with Comms Lab and Purpose Disruptors Co-Founder Jonathan Wise. In the very first episode of the Grandkids Test from all the way back in 2019, Jonathan discussed how the advertising industry can be more sustainable, at a time when the pandemic was still to disrupt our lives. It is quite interesting to observe that nearly everything that Jonathan said is still relevant today, nearly two years later.
Jonathan discussed the Myth of Endless Growth, or, in other words, the misbelief that some organisations can pursue growth infinitely in a finite world. This pressure to grow and consume is most likely what brought upon the climate crisis in the first place, and we can’t deny that the creative industries played a huge part in that. According to Jonathan, the problem lies at the very roots of the decision-making process: brands are focused on endless growth, they see no reason to change their behaviour until they achieve it, and agencies from the industry are paid to help their clients reach that growth at all costs. I recommend listening to the full episode if you have a chance; it truly is mind-opening, and Stephanie is a brilliant host.
The concept behind the Myth of Endless Growth clearly and succinctly explains everything that is wrong in the advertising industry at this moment in time. Brands and businesses are looking to grow beyond imaginable, trying to stand out in an endless sea of noise we ourselves have been creating in the past 50 years or more. Standing out means profit, but profit can only come from sales – meaning that in order to grow, brands and organisations need to sell more. This overconsumption leads to an unsustainable way of life for consumers all around the world, trapping us all in the illusion that the world will support us forever.
And while all the beautiful promises about recycling and sustainable sources sound amazing, the answer to the climate crisis isn’t in plastic bags or refillable bottles. We can see that consumer attitudes are slowly starting to shift towards a whole new mindset, but that change took way more years than we could ever hope for. As Co-Founder and Creative Director of design agency Echo so elegantly put it a few days ago on these very pages, ”for every person who will take durable jars to refill, there’s thousands who won’t.” Change is slow, people don’t like it, and while banning single-use plastics is certainly part of the solution, there is a whole mindset shift that needs to happen.
However, it is misleading to only blame consumers for a lack of sustainability. We can’t deny that Adland has been taking the current situation as a given for way too long. There is no urgency, and as the makers of the stuff that makes other stuff sell, we creatives have the power to disrupt the status quo and be the change we want to see.
We need to stop promoting unsustainable practices across all organisations.
We need to stop paying lip service to a cause as a collateral.
We need to start seeing purpose as a genuine driver for growth that goes beyond profit.
Perhaps, we may even need to question profit itself.
Image credit: SHED
What about profit?
We have all gained some benefits from being surrounded by quieter streets in the past year. Amidst the crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic has actually enabled some governments to accelerate green measures while we all remained home. The air was cleaner, the skies were quieter, and the streets were blissfully traffic-free for everyone to enjoy – well, whenever we could take a walk around town, at least. With fewer travels around the globe and a significant disruption to our everyday lives, this nasty virus has actually improved the health of the planet quite a bit.
Yet, scientists and analysts from the industry and beyond are concerned that this may not last at all. People are increasingly tired and frustrated of having to remain at home, as the recent reopening of retail stores in the United Kingdom has testified. My personal concern (and the one of many) is that going back to normal will bring upon us a push to reawaken the economy in ways that won’t be sustainable at all, possibly bringing more harm upon the environment than before. This is where a change must happen, and what the industry will have truly learned from the past year.
Many businesses think of being environmentally positive as a ‘nice-to-have’ or a pleasant addition to their current offer. I wince every time H&M announces a new ‘environmentally conscious’ collection, whilst at the same time neglecting to address the rest of the offer in their stores. That is the kind of approach that the industry should see less and less. Sustainability comes from changing attitudes – not focusing on a new target group that can bring more profit.
I wince every time H&M announces a new 'environmentally conscious' collection
This is not to say that profit should be taken out of the equation. We are all human and we all need to pay the bills. An organisation has a mission statement and potentially countless heads to feed, all involved in every single process of the production chain. Yet, there are some organisations which are sustainable-first. Innocent, Patagonia, Alpro – some businesses are born sustainable and make sustainability one of their very core values. Surely it’s ‘easier’ to start with that from the ground-up, rather than having to revolutionise what is already in place – but that is the reason why we are in this global climate crisis in the first place, isn’t it?
We have to think sustainable, work sustainable, act sustainable at all times and in every part of our business practice. Growth can fit into that, but it shouldn’t stem from the need for endless financial growth. That alone is not sustainable. There needs to be something else in which profit can fit.
And if our current business model seems to be totally harmful for the environment in every part, perhaps it’s time to start rethinking a few things here and there.
Image credit: Dmitry Pushkarev
What can agencies do?
Brands have immense power in disrupting the status quo and driving change, as the makers of the industry we all know and love. Agencies, as the most prominent business partners in this industry, have just as much power – if not even more.
Some time ago, one of our Top 100 Influencers Laura Jordan-Bambach said that refusing to work with certain clients can only be counter-productive. Cutting agencies out of the same industry they want to change is not going to bring anything positive to the world. Your clients will only look for another business, and they will be none the wiser.
Instead, you can work with your clients, rather than for them. Being environmentally conscious and informed about your own suppliers is what makes all the change. Any agency has the power to help clients understand what they are doing wrong and how their strategy can be shaped to cater for a better future.
That said, there will always be clients who say good but do extremely bad, adopting practices such as greenwashing and similar. These are clients who don’t want to be helped, and if they simply don’t align with your values, it is unlikely that your team will perform well on that project. There are times in which you just don’t have enough power to change things. It is not any agency’s job to try and educate clients who play deaf. It sucks to hear this, I’m sure. But do rest assured that, if all of us keep moving steps in the right direction, these organisations will have no choice but to adapt or die. So fear not, for they will come along. They always do.
Would you kill your own child?
It is true, Adland sells stuff, and that stuff makes money. It is true, Adland’s task is to generate growth for its own clients, and sometimes that means through overconsumption and solutions that are not entirely sustainable. But who’s to say we can’t do both? Who’s to say we can’t make money and still be sustainable, by engraving purpose and meaning at the heart of everything we do?
You need some help to design sustainable? There are plenty of resources online, including one here on Creativepool. You want to know more about Greenwashing and how to avoid it? Oh look, we have that too. Now that the Internet is at everyone’s fingertips, we have no more excuses to not be sustainable. All it takes is some research, and some willpower to take some unexpected and sudden decisions. It will all pay off in the end.
Image credit: Gary Brosnan
The most dangerous organisations nowadays are often vestiges of one or more older generations and mindsets, excessively oriented towards profit here and now with no foresight for what is to come. I won’t fall into juvenile or naive generalisations, for it isn’t always the case, but by injecting fresh views and voices into an organisation, anyone can expect to gain some renewed perspective and see things in a different light. When businesses have the chance, they should seek to establish apprenticeship programmes, take in more interns or welcome young new hires in the team more often, sometimes taking more risks than they would with already ‘seasoned’ and experienced staff – which would often have been trained in the same places we are all trying to change.
What are you doing to enable the future that our children want to see?
This is not to say that young people are the key to sustainability. Ageism is a true problem in the industry, and we all too well remember Mark Read’s comments on older creatives last year. There are plenty of experienced professionals in the industry who are bonding together and acting as one to bring change in this world. They are the ones you should be working with. Mostly because the world we will leave is the one our children will walk; and no one would want to condemn their own child to a grim future.
So next time you have doubts about sustainability and whether you can cut a few corners to get this project done faster, ask yourself this: are you doing enough to enable the future that our children will want to see?
Perhaps we should simply ask them.