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Forget ‘greenwashing’ – authenticity on sustainability delivers business results

Hot on the heels of this year’s Cannes festival, which saw thousands of international ad executives fly to France from all over the world, London’s Soho played host to a panel discussion focused on the use of  ‘greenwashing’ in brand marketing – and how to avoid it.

New Digital Age’s editor Justin Pearse chaired the ‘Pretty Green Lies’ session – and was joined by Amy Williams, CEO and founder of global ad tech for good platform Good-Loop, NDA’s partner for the event; Shakaila Forbes-Bell, consumer motivation expert and founder of the ‘Fashion is Psychology’ platform; and Harvin Gupta, Head of Commercial Partnerships at Scope3, a company that helps advertisers measure the carbon emissions created by their digital ad supply chains.

Williams opened the discussion by explaining why ‘greenwashing’ in brand marketing is such a problem, whether it’s ultimately successful or not. She said: “If successful, it creates complacency, and can delay genuine progress by distracting us from the real issues. If it’s unsuccessful, greenwashing can completely undermine the progress that we’re making. It can cause us to feel despondent or disengaged and that’s very, very dangerous.”

Scope3’s Gupta noted that he has, in recent months, seen brands be much more thoughtful, considered and holistic in their approach to sustainability.  “More brands are  taking incremental steps in the right direction, but waiting until they’ve got all the pieces together before they turn it into a consumer-facing story. Marketers have learned not to shout about small steps forward if it runs the risk of other carbon-emitting brand activity elsewhere in their supply chain being highlighted on social media.” 

Making it personal

Fashion psychologist Forbes-Bell argued that brands need to “drill into the reasons why different people have the motivation to be sustainable” in order to engage and communicate with consumers in a more authentic way. Rather than deliver blanket ‘green’ messaging that seeks to appeal to the great good, she argued that brand marketers should tap into the inherent self-interest of human beings. 

She said: “Brands need to communicate how acting non-sustainably impacts us on a personal, individual level. For example, it’s a fact that excessive materialism can be linked to anxiety and depression, so there are times when an authentic brand should be asking if a customer really needs to make that purchase. 

“That may seem counterintuitive to marketers, but it makes sense for those seeking customer loyalty. If sustainability can be communicated in an authentic way as something that’s good for you personally, rather than just something that’s good for the planet, I think that would have more cut-through.”

Williams agreed and pointed to the recent ‘Turn to Cold’ campaign for P&G’s  washing powder brand Tide in the US as an example of this approach in action. “That campaign has had a huge sustainable impact by convincing millions of people in the US to wash their clothes on a cold cycle, which reduces the consumption of electricity significantly. The ads,however, don’t focus on the environmental impact; instead, they feature Stone Cold Steve Austin making cold calls and focus on the consumer saving money and protecting their clothes. 

“It’s ostentatious, joyous advertising that has an element of consumer ‘selfishness’ baked in and that’s okay. In fact, it’s brilliant,” said Williams.

Many people are surprised to learn that the internet, including the digital marketing industry itself, is one of the biggest polluters in the world, with a combined carbon footprint that is larger than the global airline industry. “If the digital ad industry was a country,” says Williams, “its digital emissions would be the fifth largest in the world, just below Canada.” 

To help tackle this huge issue, Good-Loop and Scope3 recently announced a new partnership that enables digital marketers to measure, offset and reduce the entire, end-to-end carbon footprint of their programmatic advertising. The collaboration brings together Good-Loop’s existing green media technology, which tracks and offsets the CO2 generated by specific ad campaigns, with Scope3’s supply chain emissions data, which delivers end-to-end emissions accounting of every programmatic ad transaction. 

Williams said: “With the climate in crisis, industry-wide collaboration is our only hope and we have so much more to gain by working together than we ever could alone. There’s a long way to go but, as an industry, we should take a huge amount of energy and inspiration from how many different organisations and groups are now forming around these issues, groups such as Purpose Disruptors and the Conscious Advertising Network and initiatives like Ad Net Zero. 

“Five years ago, these issues simply weren’t on the industry’s agenda, but things have changed massively over the last 18 months.”

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