Look beyond the media supply chain for a sustainable future

Look beyond the media supply chain for a sustainable future

Selective sustainability action on media and marketing supply chains looks like greenwashing. Let’s go further.

What is our responsibility as companies in the carbon-intensive advertising and media industry? Critically, as many of us have said on many occasions, it’s about cleaning up the media supply chain: reducing our emissions and unnecessary data usage by optimising creative assets, using sustainability-assured partners and other such vital matters.

But there’s another dimension to it — and this is the harder part.

Perhaps it is a bit early, in this series of columns focused on media sustainability, to complicate the issue. However, it is evident that the impact of the advertising business doesn’t begin and end with its own supply chain — but with the unsustainable products and lifestyles it does such a good job of selling. And, along with our clients and other partners, we need to change our messaging about those things too.

It is hard to exaggerate the fundamental nature of the necessary shift we are grappling with as a global community or the critical part advertising plays in connecting business with “consumers” — by which I really mean “people”.

A self-perpetuating problem

As long as we all continue to casually define people by their ability to consume — and as long as our KPIs are volume-based ones that depend exclusively on our ability to turn those people into consumers — we have a self-perpetuating problem.

Of course, we are paid to help our clients do business and that is what we must continue to do. But we also have skills and tools that can help them make that business more efficient and sustainable: data that can deliver efficiencies and market insights; a seat at the marketing planning table when environmental, social and corporate governance targets should be built into campaigns; and persuasive creative powers to direct people towards different consumption patterns and better ways of life. We also have the ability to decline work for clients we might struggle to defend.

Brands themselves need to have the same will to do better — and I see strong signs that many do. I believe we are increasingly going to see major advertisers take on this deeper challenge as a matter of necessity, building sustainability and renewal efforts into their operations, from the products they sell to the ways in which they define success. We need coalitions of companies committed to action and I think they are on their way. People want help to reduce their own impact and brands, along with governments, are the ones to deliver it.

I won’t deny there is complicated thinking ahead. When every business decision revolves around money saved and money generated, factoring in external costs and benefits is not a natural part of the process — but it is an essential one.

Mainstream issue

Research has long since revealed that sustainability is a mainstream consumer issue. Back in summer 2022, Boston Consulting Group found that 57% of consumers said their perception of a brand was influenced by its sustainability practices — and 30% of them were prepared to switch brands or advocate positively or negatively as a result. Likewise, Deloitte has found that more than one in 10 consumers will make a purchase decision based on carbon footprint data availability — a number that is only going to grow.

As an industry engaged in bringing greater sustainability to advertising, we need to look at the problem as a whole or face legitimate charges of greenwashing. Like high-emitting individuals who dutifully do their recycling and then jump on an aeroplane or buy a wardrobe full of clothes they will wear once, an industry that focuses its sustainability efforts only on the media supply chain starts to look like a deluded one — espousing action on the climate and the environment without counting the true cost.

Yes, a greener media supply chain is immensely important. As challenging as it is, it represents a manageable, uncontroversial task for us as an industry. But what’s the sense in building one if its purpose is just to create a more sustainable way to make consumers do unsustainable things? As media and marketing practitioners, our call to action is to do both and without delay.  

Hannah Mirza is founder and chief executive of Responsible Marketing Agency

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