The process of becoming certified weeds out any shallow attempts to be perceived as sustainable, says Fiona McNae of Space Doctors.
Branding, insight and creative experts are (and have always been) the keepers of the tools of influence – we change behavior, identify emerging needs and lead the adaptation of new language, lifestyles and ideas.
At best these skills and techniques don’t simply reflect culture – they advance it. But for many years, marketing has been primarily used as a tool to identify and stimulate ever-increasing demand for goods, often pre-empting and creating a need that brands can then step in to fill. Effective marketing and advertising has always been at the core of demand and growth creation.
And growth creation as a primary goal is no longer a viable option for anyone. The IPCC Part 2 report released in August makes that much clear, stating: “We must move away from the current capitalist model to avoid surpassing planetary boundaries and climate and ecological catastrophe.”
Rather than spelling the end for marketers, though, this offers us a chance to do what we really do best: rally people.
As professional influencers, we have the power to change behavior – our clients’ behavior, their customers’ behavior, maybe even the world’s. But the most crucial behavior to change is our own. Because even as the pressure on businesses to become more sustainable has increased in the last decade, there’s no denying that the marketing industry has been guilty of selling a vision rather than an action when it comes to sustainable strategies.
So we have to rethink how we look at sustainability. And it starts with following our own advice before we can advise clients on how to communicate their sustainability efforts. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be a part of promoting an unrealistic version of our future – nodding at the optics of going green rather than making a real effort to change.
After we’ve looked inward and monitored ourselves rigorously, once we are practicing what we preach and promoting genuine sustainability from the inside out, then and only then can we confidently have the tough but persuasive conversations we need to have with those in our spheres of influence.
Beyond the shallows
That’s why I believe it’s so important for agencies to pursue B Corp status. The process of becoming certified itself weeds out any shallow attempts to be perceived as sustainable rather than walking the walk, and guides leadership to rethink their entire approach to business.
Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. B Corps, in their own words, are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.
My agency, Space Doctors, achieved B Corp status earlier this year, and while I’m proud that the rigorous process validated some of our existing practices, it also forced us to take a long hard look at other areas of the business – from our travel policy, to the ESG standards we hold, to which companies we agree to work for.
It was a demanding endeavor, but one that I believe is only going to be more and more crucial as businesses grapple with how they respond to socio-political and environmental crises.
But B Corp status certification is just the beginning of the conversation, not a reward.
The truth is, there’s no such thing as a ‘sudden transformation’ or a totally new way of doing things. Lots of conscientious organizations will already be recycling and reducing waste, limiting travel, partnering with ‘green’ service providers, volunteering and operating using a clear diversity and inclusion policy. Moreover, the pandemic will have revealed to some businesses just how possible it is to do things differently – for example limiting travel unless absolutely necessary (or rethinking the way in which travel happens, for how long and with what objectives). Some positive changes may have happened almost by accident, simply through having had to adjust to a radically different context.
So the B Corp process may not result in enormous, sudden, difficult behavior change, but what it does do is require you to be meticulous when it comes to tracking, accounting for and monitoring your data with the intent to improve your actions and better align with your values. That might be distances traveled annually (or since a company started) by air. But it could also involve vetting a network of suppliers and collaborators to ensure you are working efficiently and appropriately in line with the criteria.
What the process also does is weed out surface-level tokenism, and push us to apply a rigorous, regular culture of reflection on how we act and how that action affects the world, and the culture we exist within.
Vocabulary of values
After all, the role of the marketer in making change is ultimately one about leveraging information in a way that affects culture. Through the journey to B Corp certification, we became steeped in crucial information about what it takes for a business to behave more sustainably. Not only did actioning this information help us deliver on our values, it gave us a vocabulary for advising clients to align more closely with the values they preach – as well as a framework to challenge clients that needed to rethink their values.
Yes, we will all require some new language to help us express why we exist as a profession, a repurposing of our significant skills, and a new set of metrics and KPIs to replace the ones we have used since the last century. But wouldn’t it be worth it for the chance to change not only today’s culture, but the trajectory of the future – not for the sake of growth, but for the sake of our shared humanity?
A refocusing of our discipline away from purely driving economic growth to a new North Star – that of regenerative business models – is undoubtedly a big ask. But it’s entirely possible for people with our skillsets who are willing to radically innovate, and to rigorously and responsibly address the very real environmental and social problems that decades of unchecked growth at our hands have generated.
So the only question left for us as marketers is this: are we ready to change ourselves so we can change the world?
If the answer is yes, that yes must be accompanied by action, by continual evaluation and by a genuine willingness to challenge cultural norms for the sake of a better future.
Fiona McNae is chief executive officer of global cultural and creative consultancy Space Doctors.