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The agency guide to ‘guerrilla sustainability’

By Gavin Shinfield, Chief sustainability officer



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February 22, 2023 | 8 min read

Gavin Shinfield of digital agency Kyan makes the case for a ‘guerrilla’ approach to agency sustainability: a five-step strategy to imbue change from the inside out.

A lion, stalking in the long grass

Should agency activists be more guerrilla in their sustainability efforts? / Lisa H via Unsplash

‘We’d love to be more sustainable as a company, but we don’t have the time; I’d like to be a B Corp, but it takes too long; don’t you need a dedicated team to be sustainable? We don’t have the manpower; we can’t afford to focus on sustainability, we have bigger fish to fry.’

Do any of these sound familiar? They’re familiar to me because that was my agency a few ago. Kyan first heard about B Corp just after it came to the UK in 2015. It sounded great. Finally, a meaningful certification that chimed with our values. But the more we looked into it, the more scared we became, before putting it into the ‘too difficult, come back later’ box.

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Now is the time

‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now’.

I wish we hadn’t put off B Corp in the way we did. I know it’s a hackneyed adage, but the time really is now. There’s no time like the present to start focusing on making your business more sustainable.

We’re quickly running out of time to slow and reverse global warming if we want to stay under the IPCC’s 1.5-degree warming target. Meanwhile, social injustice and the victimization of minority groups are very real, harming millions daily. And supporting your local community (and those in wider society) is vitally important in these times of crisis.

We need everyone who can take positive action to do so and to do it now.

Not feeling ‘good enough’?

A primary reason for inaction is the feeling that one’s contribution won’t be enough to dent these big, heavy topics. So we end up doing nothing at all. When a task seems too big or too complicated, it’s human nature to back down and admit defeat before we even get started.

Let’s change this. Don’t be downhearted. Don’t listen to the negative voices. Instead, do what you can, start small, and bring people with you. If you keep plugging away with the time and resources that you do have available, you’ll be surprised how quickly you make progress.

A business case for sustainability

Sustainability isn’t just about saving the Earth. It’s also about becoming a more sustainable business. For agencies, this can really improve how you operate as a company, large or small. If you’re struggling to get stakeholder buy-in, highlight that customers and clients are looking for sustainable partners. And that sustainability can attract and retain employees; can streamline costs, increase growth, and simplify procurement.

We need to stop seeing a focus on sustainability as a ‘nice to have’ or a distraction from ‘actual work’. Instead, we should see it as vital to business success and longevity.

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When we think about the four pillars of business (brand, marketing, sales, operations), we shouldn’t just tag sustainability as a fifth pillar, but rather a foundation that underpins and supports all of these activities.

Here’s a list of simple ‘guerrilla actions’: a basic roadmap for any company to do business better, encourage work for good, and become more sustainable.

1. Define your purpose

As Simon Sinek says, ‘start with why’. Everyone will have their own distinct purpose; it’s important to find yours. Get input from your team and perform a ‘materiality assessment’ to engage stakeholders.

2. Mobilize your forces

This is not a one-person show. You can't do it alone, so make use of your team and find out their individual strengths and passions. Establish an internal 'sustainability squad' and a wider network; make friends in the community.

3. Actions not words

Don't wait for the right time to do something; just get started. If you spend all your time and effort planning, you won't be as effective as if you take action now. As they say, ‘perfection is the enemy of progress’.

4. Don't bite off more than you can chew

If a task seems overwhelming, it probably is too big to tackle all at once. Break it into smaller pieces and approach each one separately.

5. Shout about your progress

People are bashful about celebrating success. Deny this impulse! Celebrate your wins and don’t worry about getting everything 100% right. We need to normalize ‘sustainable’ business practices and make them regular business practices, and the more people that add their voices to the cause, the better.

Guerrilla sustainability isn’t a carbon copy (pun intended) of guerrilla marketing. I’m not asking you to spray paint your local town hall with climate statements or do a flash mob in support of social justice at your next agency meetup. It’s more about stepping out of conventional ways of working and surprising yourself with different ways of doing things.

Start small and before you know it, you’ll be looking back at the progress you’ve made in becoming a more sustainable organization. That is an indescribably satisfying experience and one that I’d love for you to experience too.

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