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Business must stop ‘greenhushing’ and speak up on sustainability

Companies shouldn’t keep shtum about their impact on our climate

In his latest column, IPA president and international chief executive and vice-chairman of VCCP Julian Douglas argues that, ahead of Cop26, brands and agencies need to resist the temptation to stay shtum about climate change – and start to get stuck in.

Greenwashing. Greenwishing. Greenhushing. With Cop26 on the near horizon, I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainability and our role in it. Talking with many people from across the industry, I’ve been learning a lot too.

Last week the aptly-named Helen Brain, strategy director and head of social change hub at MediaCom UK, taught me a new word: greenhushing. Greenwashing (overclaim and/or diversion) and greenwishing (hoping for the best) I already knew. Greenhushing was a new one to me. It happens when a company, for fear of putting their head above the parapet, avoids saying anything whatsoever about their progress in relation to sustainability. Basically, it means keeping shtum. Given the intense public pummeling many brands have taken for the first two, I’m not surprised to find some are taking this third option.

The role for business

The climate crisis is very real, but all hope is not lost. Business has a crucial role to play. This year’s Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows that business is the most trusted institution in relation to sustainability with a 61% trust level globally, ahead of NGOs, government and the media.

While perhaps understandable to some degree, greenwashing, greenwishing and greenhushing are not acceptable practices for responsible businesses that claim to be committed to helping the world meet the challenges laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Whether by intention or accident, whether inward or externally focused, all three have deception at their core.

This theme of deception leads to an interesting analogy. Two of the brightest brains at VCCP, Alana King and Andrew Perkins, take inspiration from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to classify brands in sustainability terms. Borrowing heavily from the Bard, they posit that some companies are born green, some achieve green, and some have greenness thrust upon them.

‘Born green’ companies have sustainability in their core. They may be smaller, newer challenger brands. Think Ecover, BrewDog or Tesla. ‘Achieve green’ companies were generally built before sustainability was such a priority, so are changing business models to be more sustainable. These include telcos, FMCGs and automotive. Think Nike, Heineken, VW. The most challenged group is those who have ‘greenness thrust upon them.’ These companies have a business model that is inherently unsustainable: gas and oil, aviation, fast fashion. They have the biggest pivot to make, but may make the biggest positive impact if they can do so successfully.

The role for advertising

Another VCCP colleague, Michael Lee, shared with me his belief that one of the best reasons to hire an advertising agency is to provide refreshing candor and objectivity. Working in a client organization and thinking 24/7 about your brand, while surrounded by colleagues doing the same, can lead one to assume our brands are at the center of people’s lives and that our painstakingly-developed sustainability marketing efforts will get a positive reaction in the real world.

Consumer perceptions of a company’s efforts are more likely to be influenced by the type of category and company than the actual impact they are making in relation to sustainability. ‘Big is inherently bad, small is inherently good’ is the heuristic the majority of us live by. Yet it is an assumption that is fundamentally misplaced. For example, Amazon’s 2020 carbon footprint of 60.64MT CO2 is the equivalent of 700 BrewDogs. A 1% cut to Amazon’s carbon footprint, therefore, becomes highly meaningful in pure environmental impact, but entirely insignificant (and so difficult to create a motivating ad campaign from) in consumers’ eyes.

At last month’s IPA Council meeting we debated whether our industry did more harm than good when it came to climate change. If our primary objective is to drive consumption, does that mean our very existence is at odds with a sustainable life? Or can we instead be a catalyst for more sustainable behavior and action? My own belief is firmly the latter. Advertising and marketing can play a crucial role in convincing people of the need to change, creating the desire to want to change, and showing people how to make the changes necessary for a more sustainable way of living. But such existential arguments ring hollow unless we address the systemic unsustainable practices.

A little less conversation, a little more action

That has been a lot of talking. So I will close today with three calls to action.

First, if you haven’t already, download the IPA Media Climate Charter, which includes a Carbon Calculator that calculates the carbon emissions associated with a media plan based on the media mix.

Second, download the brand-new AdGreen Carbon Calculator. Created specifically for the advertising production community, this tool allows production teams to collaboratively measure the carbon footprint of their production and take active steps to reduce it.

Finally, please sign up for the inaugural Ad Net Zero Global Summit taking place on November 3 and 4, broadcast live from STV’s studios in Glasgow during Cop26. The summit is free to attend for any advertising professional from around the world, providing thought leadership sessions, new research and insights and practical workshops.

Julian Douglas is IPA president, and the international chief executive and vice-chairman of VCCP

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