Sustainability doesn’t need to be shoehorned into client projects. However, strategists have a duty to identify new, more sustainable, opportunities for growth, and explain how sustainability is part of culture, argues Helen Brain, Comms Strategy Director, Iris.

This opinion piece is part of WARC’s Future of Strategy 2023 report.

The marketing sector’s role in advancing a sustainable and inclusive society is widely recognized. However, according to WARC’s Future of Strategy survey 2023, there’s a lack of sustainability and DE&I objectives being seen in briefs. This, combined with the sustainability intention-action gap and stricter regulations on green claims, raises concerns about the industry’s commitment to creating a better future when it’s most needed.

There’s a tension between crafting briefs that achieve business objectives, and the desire to contribute to positive change. It can sometimes feel like we’re shoehorning sustainability into projects without a specific mandate – yet driving brand success and creating a better future are intertwined.

There are three specific areas where strategists can and should be supporting clients:

  1. Identify opportunities for future growth. Driven by sustainable targets and innovation.
  2. Understand audiences. Research studies, including the Good Life 2030 report show people want to live better lives, which are often also more sustainable.
  3. Drive cultural relevance. Culture reflects modern life, and this includes the climate crisis.

Sustainable innovations are increasingly driving growth as industries reshape products, business models, and operations to meet sustainability goals and stakeholder expectations.

There’s plenty of proof that it’s possible to innovate in this space, use fewer resources and be successful. Look at Adidas’ Parley range made from ocean plastic waste, or the Samsung X Patagonia partnership which has produced a washing machine filter that reduces the release of microplastics.

Likewise, many brands are changing how people access products, and achieving success. The explosion of fashion rental brands taking advantage of the 10% annual growth rate expected for the sector between now and 2025 is just one example.

There’s also opportunity in building revenue streams in repair and reuse. In the reuse market brands like Autotrader and eBay have existed for a long time. What’s different now is their scale, with eBay reporting a 404% year-on-year increase in pre-loved sales between 2018 and 2020. 

When our clients ask us to find growth opportunities, we have a duty to look for headroom in how their category is innovating to hit sustainability targets. 

When we talk about sustainability and audience, the intention-action gap tends to come up, but it feels like it’s becoming an excuse to not even try to sell a more sustainable way of living

This gap exists in lots of categories: how many of us say we want to be healthier but don’t eat enough fruit, or say we want to spend more time with family but then slump in front of Instagram after work? 

In no other category do we view the gap between intentions and action as a reason to not persuade. 

Our industry is good at closing consumers’ intention-action gaps. For example, strategists have encouraged people to wear their seat belts, and stop smoking.

Our job as planners is to try and close this gap by driving fame through comms that lean into emotion, drama, storytelling, and humour. Yes, humour can be utilised in sustainability comms! It’s our job to find the right people to talk to and use our creativity and imagination to increase desire. 

In addition, there’s plenty of evidence, from Forbes, YouGovUK government,howing that what people want from life isn’t that complicated. We want connection, belonging, time with family and friends, time in nature, and nice things that work, are affordable and convenient to buy. Many sustainable products and services tick these boxes – we don’t need to hammer home carbon-reduction data in an ad, we can talk instead about how these products meet people’s existing, and often deeper, needs. 

All of this takes place in the wider cultural context, and Western culture has been one of over-indulgence. We need to alter this; we need to visualise new ways of belonging, of communicating who we are and of defining success if we want to create desire for better products, services and ways of living. 

And this is already happening, we’re seeing climate and ecology become intertwined with culture – moving from nature documentaries into pop culture, influencer content, sports reporting, fiction...

Netflix is doing great here. In 2022, 70% of members watched content that helped them understand climate issues and solutions. This included comedies like Don’t Look Up, (the second-most watched Netflix film ever), documentaries like Breaking Boundaries, feel-good films like Falling Inn Love, and sci-fi fantasy Sweet Tooth. Sky Sports recognise that the sporting world also needs to pay attention to the climate crisis as it threatens its future, and so they’ve integrated climate conversations directly into programming and talent relationships with initiatives such as #GameZero.

The deinfluencing trend that’s seen over 300m views on TikTok, emergence of influencers like Lily Fulop and Katrina Rodabaugh who promote ‘visible mending’ of clothes, and a 250% increase in searches for ‘simple vegan dinners’ on Pinterest, all speak to the fact that sustainability isn’t a ‘thing’ out there, it’s part of culture. 

If we want brands to be culturally relevant, we could do worse than aligning with, amplifying and exploring themes in sustainability, nature and wellbeing.

The next time a brief comes in, why not ask:

  1. How is the shift to a sustainable future driving innovation in this category, and where’s our opportunity in that?
  2. What do my audience want from life, not just from this product?
  3. How are the cultural spaces where the audience spends their time responding to sustainability, and how might we align with and amplify those stories?

The marketing industry holds a powerful role in shaping a sustainable future, despite challenges. Balancing brand goals with positive societal impact can be achieved through innovation, aligning with audience needs and embracing cultural relevance. Embracing this responsibility is not idealistic; it’s an integral part of our job.