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Adland’s sustainability officers say pushing for change is an ‘exhausting rollercoaster’

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By Ellen Ormesher | Reporter

December 20, 2022 | 10 min read

From disengaged stakeholders to patronizing board members, the ad industry execs in charge of controlling their companies’ environmental impact can often have their work cut out for them. We find out how it’s not always easy being green.

Sustainability officers

Sustainability officers are passionate about the work they do, but it can have an impact on mental health/ Image via Adobe Stock

As the climate emergency worsens, every industry is reckoning with the need to urgently minimize its impact on the planet – and advertising is no exception. Over the last few years, an increasing number of agencies have set out net zero pledges, with some thinking more carefully about the types of clients they choose to work for as the industry strives to decrease its emissions in line with Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

The role of the sustainability officer is central to these transformations, while for many of those who take up such a position, it is the culmination of a lifetime of campaigning and passion for the cause.

Evelyn* started her climate journey with Extinction Rebellion before realizing the impact she could have from within the ad industry, where she’d already developed skills and networks working in client services. When she was then appointed as the sustainability head at her UK-based agency, she says she was initially excited to make her passion for the natural world the center of her work. “I feel this work in my bones and so I was very lucky I basically got to design my role. But sometimes I wish I hadn’t done it.

“The educational understanding from everyone – especially at the board level – is so poor. They haven’t understood that sustainability is not a side project, it’s a business transformation and because that’s not understood at the top, there’s a disconnect between what I’m trying to achieve and what they are willing to listen to – or, frankly, put up with.”

Disruption versus progress

More broadly, sustainability officers tell The Drum that making the case for systemic change and balancing being disruptive enough to deliver progress, while also ensuring key stakeholders stay engaged, are among the biggest challenges they face.

“Today, most organizations are hardwired for short-term results rather than long-term performance,” says Anna Lungley, chief sustainability officer at Dentsu. “In some businesses, sustainability can be seen as a side agenda. The biggest challenges for CSOs, therefore, is to shift short-term mindsets to secure investment and commitment for the long-term, and ensure that sustainability is the lens through which we do business.”

But against this era’s backdrop of disruption, sustainability is often played off against other issues such as the current cost of living crisis or diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, says Rachel*, the head of sustainability at a global network agency. “All these issues are interconnected and it can be frustrating to hear and see industry narratives not joining the dots to make the case for sustainability, but rather to use them as a delay tactic to accelerate the sustainability transition.”

She says collaboration is so critical that it can be frustrating to see leaders “default to the traditional position of one-upmanship,“ when really, she says, true sustainability is about collaboration and transparency. “Seeing just how entrenched the status quo is can feel overwhelming.”

No space for emotion

When asked how these challenges affect them personally, all the sustainability officers said it can become extremely draining emotionally. “I shed tears, I feel total rage” says Rachel, likening the highs and lows of the job to “an exhausting rollercoaster”.

Lucy Usher, sustainability lead at Oliver, says that this time last year, the impact of the role on her mental health and wellbeing became almost too much for her. “The gap between what I knew needed to happen and the role I was being asked to fulfill at work was just so great – the tension was almost unbearable.”

While she credits her agency with supporting her during this time, she says the nature of the work is laden with a kind of emotion that there is no place for in business. “There is neither the time nor the culture to make space for it and I often worry that expressing my feelings will make me lose credibility.”

It’s also noteworthy that sustainability is one area in adland where women are taking the lead, which can exacerbate many of the trials its officers already face. “Like all women, I’ve experienced varying levels of sexism throughout the industry, but this is another level of being patronized,” says Evelyn.

“When I talk about the climate crisis, I’m often told by a normally very well-meaning middle-aged man that I don’t need to worry as they direct me towards a book they’ve read. It discounts the hundreds of hours of research I’ve done and the deep passion I feel.”

A woman’s work

Rachel believes it is this kind of passion and the emotional intelligence often associated with women that are needed if we are to solve the problems of transitioning to a greener future. “Feminine energies will be critical to ensure challenges are solved in an empathetic way, in collaboration, with creativity and lateral thinking,” she says.

“I believe this is true of the advertising and media industry. We need more feminine traits employed across all parts of the industry to address the imbalance that currently exists.”

The taxing nature of sustainability work means that many in the field need to rigorously protect boundaries in order to maintain a semblance of a work-life balance and protect their own welfare. “You need to be tenacious and resilient, and you need huge reserves of positive energy to inspire people with a vision of a better future and bring them along with you,” says Lungley.

“Because of this, there is a need to take time out to regroup and it’s one of the reasons why I’m disciplined about not working on weekends and holidays… I protect holiday time away from work religiously to give my people permission to do the same.”

Rachel adds: “I have a network of trusted industry contacts to talk to, I have a mentor and a coach. I also make sure I am present when I am at home with my children, finding joy with them, getting out in nature and spending time with family and friends. But I recognize my privilege – that I get to do this for my job in a relatively safe and stable country where I am able to engage in difficult conversations.”

Hope in the dark

More than anything, sustainability officers are passionate about the work they do. They tell The Drum their dedication to securing a livable future for the planet spurs them on, despite the obstacles they face.

“I am buoyed by the community spirit and efforts of everyone in the field trying to raise the bar and keep 1.5°C in sight. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” says Rachel. “The next two to three years are critical and we have a long way to go, so we have to keep the end goal and the exciting potential in sight.”

Moreover, working towards the solutions sustainable transformation requires is engaging creative work, says Usher. “I get incredibly excited by creative problem solving, it’s the reason I’ve returned to the advertising industry twice.”

From working with brands that “get it” and want to make meaningful change, to helping people internally come to terms with their place in the world and their role in fighting the climate crisis, Usher says it’s the hope and opportunity for change that keeps her in the role. “What a gorgeous challenge.”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

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