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Sustainability at Cannes Lions: the highs, the lows and the possibilities

By Alison Pepper, SVP Government Relations

July 7, 2022 | 6 min read

Much of the dialogue at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity revolved around sustainability. Alison Pepper, executive vice president of government relations and sustainability at the 4A's, reflects on the points that succeeded, missed the mark and have potential in the future.

hand shake with trees and windmills

Pepper argues that 'sustainable' propositions must be challenged. / Adobe Stock

Hosting sustainability discussions at Cannes Lions feels a bit like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Selling fast fashion for more than the annual average income in many countries and anchoring swaths of yachts and cruise ships in view of the Croisette would certainly give the impression that excess remains at the core of the festivities.

That said, an attempt was made to tackle environmental topics. How successful it was, however, might depend on your point of view and years spent in the industry. For seasoned veterans concerned about sustainability, it was probably refreshing to see issues discussed. However newcomers who are concerned about sustainability probably found the dialogue to be underwhelming and vague at times.

It’s easy to see why Greenpeace created an “activation” by using a recycled campaign tactic to simplify the message to maximum effect and save the nuanced discussions of real-world challenges for a later date. Let’s take a look at the highs and lows of sustainability at Cannes Lions, and aspirations for the future.

The highs: sustainability is having a moment

Sustainability was one of Cannes’ “Big Creative Themes” for 2022 for content and programming. In the 2022 LIONS State of Creativity survey, 85% of respondents said that creativity centered around sustainability is either critical or very important to business today. Out of the six themes listed, sustainability was identified as the most important topic on the creative agenda today.

Award categories reflected this too, with 42% of the work entered for the Design Lions award geared towards solving environmental problems, and the Sustainable Development Goals Lions awards recognizing environmental efforts in categories.

There were over a dozen sustainability topics on the official Cannes programming agenda, including the announcement about Ad Net Zero’s international rollout with corporations, agencies, and trade organizations. The 4A’s was among the list of supporters included in the industry-wide announcement to reduce the carbon impact of developing, producing, and running advertising to real net zero by the end of 2030.

Unofficial programming included a myriad of private events and meetings devoted to sustainability issues focused on reducing the carbon footprint of media and production, reducing packaging waste, and chief marketing officers discussing how to tackle climate change.

The lows: missed opportunity for expanded conversation

Since sustainability is often a catch-all term, some seemingly unrelated issues were also grouped in, such as depictions of women and minorities in advertising, any number of distinct diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) issues, environmental social governance (ESG) reporting and corporate governance, CEO pay packages, income inequality, and more. Without a doubt, they’re important issues, but it’s a stretch to call them truly sustainable which renders the goal for setting standardized, meaningful progression metrics ambiguous.

Sustainability trade-offs, their existence, and how we deal with them is a big-ticket item that I had hoped to see covered, but was missing from the conversation. In a time where inflation is soaring, a recession is looming, and consumers are budgeting more consciously, how do you convince consumers to pay a little more for a more environmentally-friendly product? Hearing the conversation around consumers’ receptiveness to paying more in certain categories versus others and strategies that are working and not working, would have made a welcomed addition to the lineup.

The possibilities: real change takes time

There’s a difference – and some legalities – between greenwashing and aspirations, that agencies and brands must know in order to keep their aspirations realistic. If the goals rely on technological “deus ex machina” or on an unprecedented level of consumer behavioral change, then the goals likely aren’t aspirational – they’re delusional. It’s important to recognize the difference.

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Real change is possible, but it’s slow and nonlinear. While Cannes Lions could have taken a deeper dive on sustainability issues, it was a good starting place for an expanded and more specific agenda in 2023.

Alison Pepper is the EVP of government relations and sustainability at the 4A's.

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