Sustainable Transformation Sustainability

Climate debate has become a bickering kindergarten. It’s time to grow up

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By Thomas Kolster, Marketing expert, speaker, author

August 9, 2023 | 9 min read

Thomas Kolster, author of Goodvertising, worries that a much-needed debate around climate activism and corporate responsibility has become so black-and-white that we’ll never find the answers in the grays.

Kintergarden

Our industry is digging its own grave (or trench) on climate.

I was recently walking along the harbor in Copenhagen, surrounded by picturesque, multicolored, half-timbered houses and old wooden sailing boats. It’s an Instagram favorite called Nyhavn. In the cacophony of walking tourists, locals on speeding bicycles and squealing seagulls, a billboard from the City of Copenhagen stood out. The copy, written in a simple font called KBH Tekst (developed for the city) on a plain yellow background with the Copenhagen city logo in the right-hand corner, read “Det er OK at være uenige“ (or, in English, “It’s OK to disagree“).

It’s a concept worth applying closer to home. Because, in advertising, the lack of a diverse climate conversation is hurting our ability to respond, and instead, legislators, activists, citizens or others will set the course.

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The greenwashing debate has remerged and instead of daring to step up to the challenge, I either witness brands or agencies implementing a one-hour greenwashing course or shying away and greenhushing.

Where’s the debate?

Where’s the creativity and innovation?

Where’s the corporate activism?

I don’t see it. And it’s my job to see it.

People reveal their true colors in times of crisis.

The ad industry is proven to fuel growth. One report, Ad Pays, from the Advertising Association, shows that advertising alone in the UK adds £120bn to the GDP by raising economic activity and boosting productivity. Every pound spent on advertising adds six to the UK GDP. What that means regarding additional carbon emissions cannot be ignored and research is beginning to uncover the correlation.

Right now, we are in a climate emergency whether people, businesses or governments want to acknowledge the gargantuan challenge. Activists are targeting our industry so far in a non-violent manner. Citizens are challenging what they see and read. Our democratic elected officials in cities and counties are having enough of advertising and are using regulation to guide or ban its effect. Our industry’s intent is being questioned like an oil company on trial for misleading citizens on climate. Our industry’s track record on other controversial topics such as cigarettes, alcohol or unhealthy food and beverages shows adland holds on to the status quo like a nicotine addict to their fix.

No wonder society doesn’t hold us in high regard; they’re already most of the time skipping our work. When will they skip us all together?

It’s an uncomfortable truth.

Let’s challenge each other in the name of progress

Our ability to challenge each other sparks innovation. We witness that in our industry’s award shows. We need real solutions now, but we get stuck without openly questioning what’s difficult.

99% of climate campaigns are a complete waste of resources as they’re preaching to the converted, like ‘Frankie the Dino’ by UNDP, or they’re simply iterating already trivial knowledge like a commercial from Swedish Västtrafik telling the ordinary Swede that it’s more carbon-friendly to take the bus than the car.

If we as an industry should secure our role around the table, we need to prove we can shift behaviors in a more carbon-friendly direction – not just pretend. The EU’s Energy Label has had proven effects on getting people to choose one dishwasher over another only because of its energy efficiency. It’s solutions like these we need. Let’s dare to rock the boat.

Take our transport systems: if we are to rethink how to go from A to B, we can’t wait for radical innovation to happen. Should fossil fuel car ads be banned? Or will that hurt ordinary families who have invested hard-earned cash in a car? Should we instead encourage and compare other modes of transportation and their environmental and economic benefits?

During the pandemic, the German government wanted people to stay in the country and launched a campaign offering everyone travel for €9 a month. The program did have its hiccups, but overall the Germans did ditch flying and chose the train.

If we want to shift people from fossil fuel cars to electric cars – or, even better, to public transportation or a bicycle – our industry has the know-how. By challenging each other, work gets better by making, unmaking and remaking. The challenge is yours.

Diverse debate unlocks new answers.

The climate debate has turned into a bickering kindergarten where complex challenges have turned into a black-and-white worldview. To move forward, we must look for the answers in the grays and dare to discuss them without fear of repercussions. A healthy debate is not a mud-throwing exercise. If you think you know better about climate, why would you bully others?

Would you have done that back in school and the topic was, say, math? We need urgent answers and sorry to disappoint you, but those don’t come exclusively from one group of people. I’m not perfect when it comes to living more sustainably; far from it. We all must face this imperfection instead of hiding behind a woke shield or simply ignoring the conversation.

We can’t just keep pointing fingers at each other: citizens at businesses, activists at governments, our industry at legislators. We should discuss and invite all voices around the table, from politicians, car makers and citizens to activists. It’s time to open the door for more stakeholders – especially those not agreeing with you.

Bold action is needed to cut emissions.

As an industry, we’re not only obsessed with growth; we are the symbol of growth. If we as an industry are to keep our license to operate, we need to act and plan for a world where we share the pie, not grow the pie.

Yes, there are low-hanging fruits where we can cut emissions while delivering growth. Take categories like plant-based beverages or, for example, electric cars. When more brands speak up for electric, the electric pie grows and everyone wins.

One good recommendation for today’s marketing plan: think about how you can still increase market shares while drastically lowering your carbon footprint because, in the western world, your average citizen has a planetary footprint three to five times higher than it should be. As an industry, we have an obligation. This is what should keep everyone in marketing up at night.

What’s your marketing plan for cutting down emissions?

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Let’s never take democratic debate for a given.

In the western world, we can no longer take our democracy for given as it’s threatened by autocrats and from within our borders. It’s a stark reminder of why democracy matters. It’s OK to disagree; what matters is our ability to find the best compromise together.

We need to challenge each other to create progress. Secondly, we had folks who didn’t hold all answers and we desperately needed to invite more diverse stakeholders around the table to find the fresh required answers. Lastly, it’s an emergency; we need bold action now!

Please, let’s disagree more.

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