4A's Sustainability Summit: Marketers Must Take Action on Climate Change

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With environmental issues across the globe at such a critical juncture, the ad industry needs to take a more active role in facing the challenges of global warming. That crucial need was front and center during this week's virtual 4A's Sustainability Summit.

"The time has never been more urgent to have the conversations we're having today," said 4A's President and CEO Marla Kaplowitz, who moderated the panel "The Time Is Now. Why Brands and Agencies Must Be the Architects of Shaping the Future of Environmental Sustainability."

"Sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option," Kaplowitz continued. "Brands and agencies have a unique opportunity to be proudly part of meaningful solutions. And while international and domestic regulators and standard-setting NGOs [non-governmental organizations] will continue to work towards getting consensus and commitments on climate action, it's increasingly clear that the process will be slow, and might evolve to a bare-minimum standard."

The industry has a "massive credibility issue" when it comes to sustainability, said panelist Oliver Joyce, Mindshare's Global Chief Transformation Officer and GroupM Decarbonisation Programme Executive Director.

Joyce referenced a recent World Federation of Advertisers event, during which 74% of some 850 marketeers voted "yes" to the statement: "Marketing today is incompatible with sustainability goals."

"I think there are three things internally that we need to look at," Joyce noted. "We need 'architects' who are supremely well-qualified -- more people working in the front line of agencies, co-creating solutions. Sustainability people can't be 'ticking the boxes,' saying, 'Okay, that's acceptable.' They need to be creating the solutions with us."

Secondly, Joyce continued, "We need to get our house in order. If you look at the big agency groups, there are only two that have earned CDP [Carbon Disclosure Project] 'A' ratings, which isn't enough."

Thirdly, "we need to be working with the scientists, the engineers, the financiers, the policymakers to find the solutions," he said. "If we do that -- and we're humble about it -- I think we can significantly accelerate the impact of the work those people are doing, but it's collaborative."

Looking at the sustainability problem externally, Joyce described it as "a marketing challenge. How do we rapidly close the gap between consumer claims and actual behaviors?" He recently read that 71% of consumers view climate change to be as big a risk as COVID, while only 27% of consumers were classified as "eco-active" -- a gap of more than 40%.

"I think it's critical that we close that gap between claimed intent and behaviors," Joyce asserted. "In addressing that, we can prove to businesses that sustainability is going to be central to any future success. Because if sustainability is seen to be hindering economic progress, we have a big problem; voters will continue to prioritize short-term wellbeing versus the long-term threats."

On that front, Joyce said he doesn't blame the public. "People need to feed their families and keep their houses warm; they're busy and in a rush," he said. "So, we need to find ways that they can do all of those things. We need to sort out affordability and access to close that gap."

Kaplowitz pointed out that businesses need to help individual consumers understand what they can do. "It's very easy to say, 'Well, that's someone else's problem,' or 'the government or companies are going to fix it,'" she said. "It's going to take everyone's immediate actions to really drive that change."

"We need to treat sustainability in the same way that we treated digital transformation for the last 15 years," Joyce said. "Digital transformation has been all about business growth, and ultimately, if you haven't invested in it, you've gotten left behind. And I think we need to take the same attitude with this, because unless you're truly invested in sustainability, you really are going to be left behind."

Joyce also identified three transformational "pillars" required for sustained and enduring growth. The first is an improved consumer experience. The second is an improved working experience, where employees are motivated to deliver better products or services. "And we know," he added, "that sustainability is a huge staff motivator; it's a brilliant way of attracting and keeping talent." The third pillar is the positive impact of sustainability on people and the planet.

"No one gets out of bed and thinks, 'Let's pollute the planet,'" Joyce explained. "They think, 'How can I live my life in the easiest, most convenient, most affordable way?' I truly believe that it's about access and affordability. We've gotten very good at justifying investments in digital transformation and technology. I think applying that same sort of thinking to sustainability has to be the way forward. And it is the most important marketing opportunity -- and challenge -- of our generation."

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