Ben Essen is global chief strategy officer at U.K.-founded creative agency Iris, where he works to drive sustainable progress within businesses, brands, and society.
Powerful storytelling alone is no longer enough for brands that want to make a meaningful contribution to sustainability. Consumers now expect action.
I recently judged the marketing industry’s first-ever Ad Net Zero Awards, hosted by Campaign and sponsored by Google. What set the winners apart was how they were moving beyond just messaging and towards solutions that directly contribute to a substantial, scalable reduction in emissions. To achieve this, they tapped into business areas that aren’t currently front of mind when people talk about sustainability, such as customer experience (CX) and B2B marketing.
It’s this holistic approach that I hope to see much more of in the future. Here’s why.
Customer data holds the key to circularity
More than 90% of all materials used today still end up as waste, accounting for over two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But change is happening, and marketing has a fantastic opportunity to reinvent itself as the engine of an emerging circular system, where products are continually refreshed, reused, and reinvented depending on the various stages of people’s lives.
Take Ikea, which won the Ad Net Zero award for Retail. Ikea’s customer relationship management (CRM) programme has started using "Knuff” (Swedish for “nudge”) theory, a form of behavioural economics centred on encouragement.
Throughout the buying journey, the retailer nudges customers towards more sustainable choices, from tips on how to extend the life of products to online filters for environmentally friendly options. As a result, revenue from sustainable products surpassed that of non-sustainable products.
That alone is a good start. But imagine if Ikea also took into account its other initiatives, such as the Buyback & Resell scheme that allows customers to return used furniture in exchange for credit. If the retailer plugged data drawn from this programme into its CRM system, it would be able to prompt returns just as much as purchases. In addition, it could add “disassembly instructions” and a seamless digital service to make it easier for customers to return old items for resale.
By tapping into their CRM systems, brands can help turn customers into participants of a circular ecosystem.
Business collaborations accelerate growth
Sustainability thought leaders often talk about the need for a system change to protect the planet from the worst effects of climate change. But this is easier said than done in a world where every industry is a complex ecosystem of suppliers, brands, retailers, and intermediaries.
No single company, regardless of its size, can drive system change on its own. B2B marketing can play a vital role in joining the dots and helping companies and their suppliers to coordinate transformation through shared goals, insights, and ideas. All it requires is a few organisations to seize the leadership opportunity.
One such brand is Ad Net Zero winner in the Drinks category, Budweiser. Having moved to fully renewable electricity in 2017, it stepped up again by starting the Budweiser Energy Collective in 2022. Aware that 90% of the global hospitality industry was still running on non-renewables, the beer brand saw an opportunity to help partner venues and bars make what can be a costly switch.
Investing in local suppliers enables the brand to offer electricity at a hugely discounted price, while also actively encouraging the local production of green energy.
Marketing has a fantastic opportunity to reinvent itself as the engine of an emerging circular system.
The move has quickly transformed Budweiser from a beer supplier into a key driver of the drinking economy’s shift to Net Zero, with beer made from 100% renewable energy that can be drunk at bars that follow the same ethos.
This shows how taking sustainability beyond storytelling requires brands to lead by example. Only through collaboration will they be able to drive the pace of change needed to achieve environmental goals.
Agencies can become agents of change
While many agencies will take on whichever client opportunities are presented to them, there is a different path to take — one that proactively develops an ecosystem of clients that themselves are committed to sustainable goals.
At Iris, this thinking is already shaping how we operate and approach our business development. Having worked with clients across the energy, finance, technology, and mobility sectors, we’re now looking for ways to bring them together to boost consumer participation in a sustainable ecosystem.
One aim is to form a coalition of clients to solve sustainable development problems that they couldn’t tackle alone. This might mean bringing together a fashion retailer and a delivery company to develop a zero carbon “wear and return” proposition powered by a data-driven CRM platform. Or helping renewable energy providers partner with events companies and landowners to ensure that all festival sites, which normally run on diesel generators, have access to green energy.
Increasingly, brand owners will expect this sustainable ecosystem approach from their agency partners. Organisations such as the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which allows any businesses’ sustainability credentials to be checked, already encourage this. Brands should evaluate their agency’s roster to find possible synergies and ensure they’re surrounded by like-minded companies.
If we are to fight the climate crisis, it is vital that businesses step up and play their part. But embracing sustainability isn’t just a necessity; it’s also a huge opportunity for companies to lead the way.