Marketing: The Guardian of Culture & (Potential) Agent of Sustainability

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How do marketing and environmentalism effectively co-exist? It’s a question I’ve grappled with for a long time, especially now, as the future of the two are inextricably linked. By definition, marketing is “the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service”, (Merriam Webster). Environmentalism is the “advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment” (Merriam Webster). 

What is the intersectionality between the two? In marketing lingo, it is a complex brief. We must put people first, protect human rights, defend the integrity of our Earth…while simultaneously marketing products and facilitating new brand experiences. 

The truth is, we don’t have a comprehensive solution – yet. And we’re running against the clock. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), if global temperatures rise by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit), 17% of the worlds’ population will be exposed to extreme heat, over 350 million people in urban populations will be exposed to severe draught, we’ll lose 6% of insect species, 8% of plant species and 70 – 90% of the coral reefs. 1.5% is the breaking point. A higher rise in temperature (which is inevitable if we maintain the status quo) will result in a world unrecognizable and unlivable. Every single person on Earth – especially those already suffering from economic and social disparity – will be at risk. 

So, what does this have to do with marketing? Well, everything. Sheila Colclasure, IPG’s Global Digital Responsibility Officer says, “marketing is the guardian of culture.” It has an unprecedented range – with the ability to unify or destruct; to promote creativity, human ingenuity, progressive values, and freedom of speech or spread misinformation, fear and hate. Global Climate Change and environmentalism are, in many ways, products of human culture. So, if marketing does in fact foster and protect human culture, then marketing certainly has the power to change it. 

Now is the time to get started. 

The business community is stepping up – and stepping in – for government officials. They’re already addressing environmental sustainability and prioritizing the “double bottom line”. 

The Double Bottom Line – sometimes referred to as “The Triple Bottom Line,” “DBL” or “Social Investing” – is a practice adopted by businesses seeking to enhance the concept of the conventional bottom line by incorporating a second bottom line to measure performance in terms of positive social impact.

Marketing, as a practice, is in a unique position to contribute to environmentalism for several reasons. The practice of marketing as a standalone business isn’t broadly seen as being a primary contributor to global climate change (as discussed on “Future Proof” Oxford University & Kantar Consulting’s marketing-focused podcast). It’s easy to grasp how industries that produce tangible goods can impact the environment (i.e. the emission of harmful Greenhouse Gases for shipping, plastic packaging, waste, etc.) but it’s more difficult to pinpoint why the practice of marketing in and of itself is currently unsustainable. Again though – think of marketing as the guardian of culture.  We are deeply connected and in-tune with consumer needs and desires. We evolve alongside the marketplace in order to drive growth, longevity and productivity for our clients’ businesses. Based on that position, there is a moral and ethical need to bridge the gap between brands and consumers to improve the environment, together. According to a study conducted by Nielsen, 85% of Millennials feel it is “extremely” or “very” important that companies implement programs to improve the environment.

Here are concrete next steps to improve our position and positively impact the environment:

  1. Engage in impactful partnerships: Michael Roth, Chairman & CEO of Interpublic Group (IPG), is the industry’s leading advocate and champion of corporate social responsibility initiatives and promoter of the double bottom line. Diversity is a business Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Under his leadership, IPG became the first holding company to link CEO compensation at its major U.S. companies with performance against diversity initiatives.

    Under Roth’s leadership, IPG places equal weight behind its talent and community investment initiatives. Through various public-private partnerships – such as its engagement with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #6 – IPG is taking steps in becoming an increasingly sustainable organization. In an effort to increase awareness around sustainability, IPG publishes a dedicated sustainability report, STRONGER, highlighting corporate citizenship from across the portfolio. 
  1. Incorporate Intersectional Environmentalism into your organization’s key values & cultural pillars: Today, you cannot talk about sustainability without talking about social justice – issues that have been treated as separate initiatives by (primarily White) activists for far too long. As a result of the historic Black Lives Matter movement and other calls for justice by the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community and allies, we as an industry need to start talking about Intersectional Environmentalism. Intersectional Environmentalism – “a form of climate justice that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet” – may seem at first unrelated to marketing, but upon closer inspection, is in fact the perfect term for what we’re trying to achieve here at IPG and (hopefully) across the industry as a whole. 

    Intersectional Environmentalism also addresses the fact that race, even before economic class will determine the level of exposure to environmental injustice such as toxic waste or harmful emissions. According to the Washington Post’s article Climate Change is also a Racial Justice Problem, “Racism” says Penn State meteorologist Gregory Jenkins “is ‘inexorably’ linked to climate change because it dictates who benefits from activities that produce planet-warming gases and who suffers most from the consequences.” Again, one might ask, but what does this have to do with marketing? We dictate which ads are served to which groups of people. We determine how and when to push consumerism and for which products. So, as we think about the deep link between racism and global climate change, we must also think about how we as an industry are combatting racism and bias in our data and our marketing practices. Are we taking into consideration the groups of people we target and their exposure to worsening environmental conditions? It is the essence of conscious marketing – to continuously ask and evaluate – are we doing more harm than good? Are we marketing sustainablyand with the consumers best, long-term interest in mind?

    Prioritizing this concept of intersectionality and being inclusive in our efforts will only strengthen our footing and make us more effective as purpose-driven marketers.  
  1. Look at ESG (Environmental, Social & Corporate Governance) as a necessity for profitability & an opportunity for growth – not a “box to be checked”: In a recent survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review, “65% of consumers said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, yet only about 26% actually do so.” And has history has shown, while the modern concept of capitalism and the “natural earth existing solely for human use” has proven profitable (for a select few primarily, White males) in the short term, this model is unsustainable in the long run and therefor, cannot be seen as a profitable, viable option for business. 

    Many of the world’s most successful brands have already begun prioritizing sustainable development to great success both economically and socially. While these efforts don’t address the entire problem, they have the potential to lead to tangible outcomes and pave the way for innovation by competitors in the space. Brands like Patagonia and REI have stood against consumerism and fast fashion for years. Dating back to 2011, Patagonia launched a campaign to discourage people from buying one of their best-selling jackets on Black Friday due to the environmental impact associated with producing the coat. More currently, Microsoft Inc. and Bill Gates are trying to solve the world’s energy crisis by discovering a viable alternative to fossil fuels with the formation of Heliogen and TerraPower LLC. While the task of staying profitable and addressing global climate change may seem daunting, innovation fuels competition and in turn, leads to the health and stability of our global economy. For organizations to get a piece of this untapped wealth, they have to throw their hat in the ring.
  1. Be thoughtful in your advertising approach because digital advertising has a carbon footprint, too! It goes without saying that traditional direct mail and OOH (out-of-home) advertising have a carbon footprint, but according to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, data centers (upon which modern marketing is built) account for 2% of the United States’ electricity use. As the future of marketing becomes increasingly data-driven, its environmental impact will likely grow. Mike Berners-Lee, a fellow at Lancaster University who researches carbon footprints, estimates that a single email can produce up to 50g (1.7oz) of CO2e or more – meaning that email ads (the ones we get hundreds of each day) also have an environmental impact. 

For modern Marketers, this situation may seem unavoidable, but I see it as an opportunity to increase both efficiency and practice sustainability. The focus for marketers has moved away from the masses and has shifted to the individual. With each client engagement we look to reach the right consumer at the right time with minimal waste or overlap in the ads they’re served. By practicing this model more broadly, we could, as an industry reduce the number of wasted media dollars by focusing on personalization and connection in our advertising and in turn, reduce the environmental impact per served impression while also saving our clients’ money. I’d even go so far as to ask the industry to use MMM (Media Mix Modeling) to optimize against sustainability and maximize efficiency. It’s a win, win.

As marketers, we may assume that, since we aren’t producing any physical goods or selling our services to consumers, our impact on the environment and power to change the tides is limited. But if we have access to unique data sources, client messaging and the like, why can’t we have an impact? Why can’t we share these findings and purchasing habits with our clients? Why can’t we monetize a sustainability offering using what we already know and have access to within our four walls and via our partnerships? Building out such a practice will not only benefit us and improve our business, but our clients as well.

  1. Make it easy for your employees to incorporate sustainable practices into their day-to-day lives: No one said we were going to save the planet by banning the plastic straw, and if they did, they need a bit more education on the subject. But individual changes – however small – lead to a larger change in sentiment and contribute to the demand for systematic change. 

    So, why does this matter to companies? The fact is, we spend most of our time at the office (that is, before COVID-19) and as a product of that lifestyle, we can in many ways increase our environmental footprint. Many offices aren’t up to code when it comes to greening their buildings, large offices don’t offer an alternative to single-use plastic utensils and many have to spend hours a day commuting by car. I’d ask leadership to address these issues as if they were addressing a business problem. Put together a sustainability task force as you did for COVID-19 – the climate crisis is that important and impacts each and every one of your employees, loved ones, and yourself. 

We must look at ourselves but also, we must look at the evolution of the marketplace:

This is likely going to be an unpopular opinion, but if we’re willing to refuse client business based on social issues, why aren’t we willing to do the same to those not committing to real, not performative, environmentalism? Goldman Sachs will only carry out IPOs for companies with a “diverse” board (albeit minimal requirements for a company to qualify as diverse and they need to demand more). In 2015 Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff threatened to “reduce investment in Indiana” to block the law allowing for businesses to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. And, most recently, everyone is boycotting Facebook. 

So, I ask: with the future of life on Earth hanging in the balance – with marginalized communities poised to suffer as a result of corporate America’s actions – why aren’t we taking a firm stance against anti-environmental practices? Why aren’t we calling out clients who aren’t reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions? Why can’t we say no to businesses who don’t seek alternatives to non-renewable energy sources? Reject those who produce fast fashion? Turn away companies who drill for oil or promote big agriculture on indigenous land? Condemn brands who don’t enforce safe, clean work conditions? 

We are increasingly connected to the consumer and have an obligation to use our abilities to educate our clients on consumer sentiment. But if they won’t listen, I would argue that we also have an obligation to our consumers – the people we claim to care so much about – to set the bar high and put purpose before immediate profit. 

We have dubbed ourselves the guardians of culture – so I have to ask, what culture are we guarding? 

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