Ben Essen is global chief strategy officer at creative agency Iris, working to drive sustainable progress within businesses, brands, and society.
If digital transformation defined the past 10 years of marketing, the next 10 are set to be determined by another, greater challenge: cutting carbon emissions to net zero.
As a $600 billion industry that influences the lives of almost every person on the planet, advertising has a vital role to play in determining whether the world will succeed in its transition to a low-carbon, sustainable society.
While there is a growing list of brands communicating their eco-credentials in authentic and brilliant ways, marketers also have the chance — and, arguably, the responsibility — to go further.
Marketers have the power to change people’s behaviours at the scale needed — selling the vision and benefits of sustainability.
They will also have to apply the best of their data skills, creativity, and insight to change people’s attitudes to sustainable products and processes — as well as making carbon emissions a critical factor in how we measure growth, success, and advertising effectiveness.
Here are three key areas where marketers can lead the way.
1. Stoking demand for sustainable products and business models
Over the past century, marketers have done an incredible job of selling the idea of ownership, often encouraging people to buy short lifespan products they will soon discard.
The shift to net zero will fundamentally change people's relationship with products. It will be about selling “access over ownership” and championing products and business models with longer life spans — such as rentals, reusable, and recycled products.
Marketers have the power to change people’s behaviour at the scale needed. Their unique skillset can sell consumers — and internal stakeholders — the vision and benefits of circularity and sustainability. And while the drive to net zero promises to be a slow process of incremental change, they can make the idea of participation seem exciting.
For example, outdoor clothing specialist Patagonia encourages its YouTube viewers to “care and repair” rather than buying new, and Ikea has launched a buy back scheme, where customers can return used Ikea furniture in exchange for credit to spend on new products.
These are strong steps, but there is still a long way to go. According to the Circularity Gap Report 2021, only 8.6% of the world’s products are currently considered circular.
2. Driving high value from low carbon services and products
As we decarbonise the economy, the world will potentially spend trillions on building new systems, services, and products that allow people to continue to enjoy their lifestyles.
Being transparent about carbon emissions is an important first step for marketers and the businesses they work in.
This is a huge opportunity for the companies and brands that lead the way in low carbon innovation. Marketing teams will need to call on their deep understanding of consumers and technology to shift what people perceive to be of value. They must nudge them towards the services that can attract high margins without the same levels of planetary impact.
British Gas, for example, focuses their marketing on the home services side, which includes high-margin, low-carbon features, such as smart meters, insulation, and heat pumps. This comes to life in its “This is what sustainability looks like” campaign, championing smaller, everyday changes for reducing carbon footprint.
Other brands are using the purchase of physical goods as a gateway to unlocking the value of digital services, where there are still challenges around carbon emissions but more potential to drive efficiencies. Take Google Nest, where buying a smart home appliance opens access to everything from music streaming to a subscription offering that helps keep users informed about events in their home.
In the not-too-distant future, fashion brands may be selling more virtual clothes for digital avatars than physical products online or in-store. That may sound far-fetched, but some of the biggest fashion houses, such as Gucci, are already making significant investments in the metaverse.
3. Being honest and open about their impact
Data will play a central role in any sustainability transformation. For economies to become truly low carbon, every tonne of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent, the common unit used to describe the various greenhouse gases) will need to be tracked and accounted for — just like every pound is today.
According to the Advertised Emissions Report, the ad industry will have a lot of work to do here. Multiplying the uplift in sales driven by advertising by the carbon footprint of each item sold, the report found that U.K. advertising added more than 186 million tonnes of CO2e emissions in 2019. That’s equivalent to 47 coal-fired power plants running for an entire year.
Being transparent about carbon emissions is an important step for marketers. They also need to understand what’s driving those emissions and take responsibility for the full impact of their work.
Here, it’s critical how this impact is calculated and shared seamlessly across product categories. Where return on investment (ROI) is universally accepted as a consistent metric of advertising effectiveness, return on carbon (ROCO2) tallies incremental revenue from advertising against every tonne of carbon it has produced.
The ROCO2 calculation provides the missing measure in the climate crisis — a consistent metric for gauging advertising’s “ecoffectiveness”.
As net zero is now a key business target, carbon emissions must become a key measure of effectiveness. Thinking in terms of ecoffectiveness is essential to ensure that marketers are not pursuing short-term growth at the expense of the climate or cannibalising our economy to save it — but instead building viable, sustainable, and profitable businesses that can actually benefit the planet.
For marketers keen to assess and improve their ecoffectiveness, the key points are summarised in: “Ecoffectiveness”: The Missing Measure in a Climate Crisis.