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Sustainability x Advertising: Empowering Marketers to Follow their Own Moral Compass

Michelle Carvill and Alexis Eyre talk about the education challenge around advertising and marketing’s role in the climate crisis - and why community-level thinking is needed to make systemic change

Sustainability x Advertising: Empowering Marketers to Follow their Own Moral Compass

Marketing and advertising’s role in the climate emergency is an intricate and far-reaching one. As we’ve seen throughout the series, there are so many surprising interconnections, and it seems that what’s needed is a drastic and urgent industry-wide, systemic change. For individuals working within the industry, that can seem a daunting and even off-putting prospect. But, paradoxically, it’s going to take a groundswell of individuals educating themselves, asking questions, agitating for change and forming communities to reach a tipping point large enough to enact adequate change. Every journey starts with a single step.

According to sustainable marketing consultant Alexis Eyre and Michelle Carvill, co-founder of the ‘Can Marketing Save the Planet’ podcast and the Sustainable Marketer Manifesto, marketers need to educate themselves urgently, learn to use their voices and start thinking about the way their work can help or hurt the communities in which they operate. Amelie Lambert chats to both Alexis and Michelle about the systemic change needed and resources to help marketers and ad folk educate themselves, empower their peers - and ultimately, put an end to greenwashing. 

Amelie> Can you each tell us about your raison d'être, your purpose?

Alexis> I’m Alexis Eyre. I've been working in marketing for roughly 15 years and have worked across all three sides - agency, client and media. So I can see the challenges from every part of the triangle. I dove into the sustainability space about two years ago, and now my focus is on how you make marketing sustainable. 

Michelle> My name is Michelle Carvill, I have a very similar background to Alexis and have probably been in marketing a little bit longer. I started off in advertising in the early ‘90s, then switched to the client side of marketing and for the last 20 years, I've been a marketing consultant, running my own business.

A lot of the work I did on the agency side was more ‘cause’ related and that was where I suppose I felt my heart has always been. I've always felt a bit uncomfortable about marketing's role in the world, and I've always tried to work with organisations that are trying to make things better. 

About three years ago, I got together with a couple of people and we wrote and published a book called ‘Sustainable Marketing, How to Drive Profits with Purpose’ which is how I met Alexis. 

I am not a sustainability expert, I am not a climate scientist, I'm a marketer. But of course, once you start to understand the impact that marketing and advertising is having on driving consumption levels and consumer behaviour, you can't hide from reality. Then you move forward, almost immorally, and it feels all out of kilter with your own compass. 

I had no idea, when I started writing and researching Sustainable Marketing, that it would take over my life. But now I'm really on a cause very similar to Alexis, to change what marketing is as we move forward. I'm working with the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) to develop training courses and educational resources and materials to support marketers. We've created a Sustainable Marketing Manifesto. The idea is that the 10.6 million marketers on the planet can align with that, and we take voices away from organisations that aren't focused on driving a more responsible agenda for the world. 

Amelie> Now that we know what you're working towards, could each of you perhaps take us through some of the challenges you're working on as part of this mission?

Michelle> I suppose the ongoing challenge for me is awareness and helping marketers to realise that this is an important area they as communicators need to have an impact on. It’s also about letting them know that they do have a voice and to use it. This is an area where they need to stretch their thinking and understanding, to realise that climate change is a marketing challenge.

I think many marketers think, "Well, I'm not a climate scientist. I'm not a sustainability expert, what role can I actually play here?" Actually, their role is absolutely significant because this is about communication, about strategy, values, purpose, and understanding the landscape that you operate in. 
And as marketers, these are all key elements we know how to do. 

Amelie> How are you trying to solve that challenge?

Michelle> I'm coming at it in a few ways. There's the Sustainable Marketing Manifesto which is a pledge. I do a podcast with Gemma Butler, the ‘Can Marketing Save the Planet?’ podcast.

It's all about education, really, either through the book or getting people to tune into the podcast and hear from some of the incredible guests that are already pioneering in this area: academics, disruptors, and a different blend of organisations that are already making headway and leading the path for others. Then there’s education through practical education, through formal training programmes, through the Chartered Institute of Marketing. There are open courses around sustainable business transformation, or sustainable marketing that have already been created too. 

People can come and learn and gain the courage to ask uncomfortable questions - questions that perhaps they didn't feel confident asking before. They can then affect some real change, or indeed, it may drive them to take a more professional qualification. 

We also respect that not everybody is going to come through a qualification route. They might be within a small organisation, doing everything and yet, they still have power to change things. For them, there is a more of an informal track, where people are starting to educate themselves by listening to the podcast, by joining this Sustainable Marketing Manifesto. It isn't just about signing a pledge, we've actually added a little bit of gamification in there. We've created a learning zone, where we've added some fantastic practical resources, specifically handpicked to educate the marketer, but also to make things practical for them. 

Amelie> Alexis, as a sustainable marketing expert, what challenges are you working on or trying to solve? And how are you doing that?

Alexis> Michelle and her team are doing amazing work helping marketers understand the wider sustainability landscape and the need for change. I focus on the next step down, i.e. how we make marketing as a function inherently sustainable and a force for good.
So what is wrong with marketing as a function currently? One example is the complete inequality created by brands through COVID. Elderly people were the ones required to isolate the most yet as a group, predominantly don’t have access to - or shop on - the internet. Every single brand went online throughout this period with little regard for this audience most needing help.
Another example is the events industry. On average, a 3-day mid-sized trade show with roughly 1000 attendees produces 6000 tonnes of carbon and 5670kg of waste that ends up in landfill. And most of that is driven by the exhibitors themselves.
Then you have the monumental carbon footprint of media campaigns, from the sheer amount of useless merchandise that goes straight into landfill to the fact that $153m digital ad was spent on websites that published articles including hate speech against Asian people in the first quarter of ‘21. The list is endless.

The other issue is that most of the focus to date has been on the environmental impact, which whilst really important, often ignores the societal element. Every single day, the average individual is served 4,000-10,000 ads per day. Now think back to how many times you have been told that you must fix your frizzy hair, you’re not a man if you don’t wear these trainers and so on. We’re bombarded with adverts telling us we are not good enough if we do not buy this and that. You can start to see why we have so many societal issues.
These examples hopefully start to paint a picture of how inherently destructive today’s current marketing techniques are and how important it is for marketers to start truly understanding the problems they’ve created through their own function.
I work with Paul Randle, another sustainable marketing consultant with the most ridiculous marketing experience under his belt, on rethinking the system. After taking the Business Sustainability Management course by CISL, we were so aware that the current way of marketing did not align with the new sustainable business model coming in. If anything, marketing was actually hindering the clean transition. So we created a new framework called the ‘Sustainable Marketing Compass’, a planning tool that helps marketing actively contribute towards and align with a company’s wider sustainability objectives. The framework enables marketing to become a force for good from branding and strategy, through to tactics and governance and if applied correctly, prevents brands from ever sitting in the greenwashing camp.

Amelie> In previous interviews we talked about blind spots and you mention online footprints. Is the huge weight of our online footprint something we don't talk about or don't realise? Our previous guest, Conscious Advertising Network, addresses how advertising is inadvertently funding hate speech and climate misinformation. How do you think we can address those blind spots from a marketing perspective?

Alexis> I think the first thing is education. You can't address an issue until people understand it. Publications and training programmes really need to use their reach to start throwing down the gauntlet and getting people to face the reality that marketing has a monumental footprint in its own right. And I think that will be the first thing and only then can you start tackling it - once you know what you're faced with.

Michelle> We interviewed Philip Kotler, the grandfather of marketing, and we thought it would be quite interesting to see what his take is, all these years later. And he said "Where we need to focus now is de-marketing." This isn't about more, this should be about less. This should be about how we reduce our footprint. How we support the solutions and use marketing as a force for good, rather than just to drive profit at any cost. 

Back to Alexis' point about whole benchmarks of success, we talk about the triple bottom line, but how is that really managed and celebrated from a measurement perspective? Where are these societal responsibilities? How many organisations actually measure their impact? It's all very good businesses making things plant based or recycled and sticking that sustainability badge on, but it's not really moving the dial. It's a sticking plaster over the problem. 

Alexis> The other element to consider is to ask two questions about any marketing decision.“Will this marketing decision make me money? Okay, yes it will. The next question should be: what societal and environmental change am I driving with this marketing decision? We should have every decision sit in the centre of this people-planet-profit triangle. That means you are always asking ‘how will this affect each of the pillars?’ It's never about one pillar anymore. 

Amelie> It seems quite a challenge to disentangle the cause and effect, and to separate out the marketing issue from the marketing solution, the systemic issue and the systemic solution? How would you break that down?

Michelle> I wish I had all the answers to that. This system has been around for decades and now we're concentrating on new ones, talking about circular, about sustainability and so on. Organisations are just trying to find their way around that at the moment, rather than think, "Oh, maybe we need to re-engineer everything that we do." 

For some organisations, that's going to be way more difficult. They are enmeshed in decades of behaviour that's been going in one direction. If we had decades to fix this, I'd be feeling like it's just fine, we're on a new trajectory - and I’m hopeful this will become part of business as usual - but of course, the challenge is that we don't have decades. I don't believe that organisations have woken up yet to just how urgent the need to respond is. I think the IPCC reports are so underplayed, I don't think that many organisations are carbon literate or aware of what is really going on with the planet. My concern is that we're not moving quickly enough and it's not being taken seriously. I suppose, the biggest challenge is how do they unpack this urgently? 

Alexis> I think another issue with marketing - due to digital - is that we've become so focused on individualism, and surveillance capitalism. There is a huge lack of compassion, a heavy focus on algorithms and a lack of governance in place. I think the real problem behind this is the obsession with targeting the individual. We celebrate 20% open rate on email, so how well do we actually know the individuals anyway, regardless of all this amazing data that we collect?

If marketers got to zoom out from all of this, they’ll find that we've got to get committed more at a community level. Once we start to understand community issues, and people sitting within those communities, then we can unpick the systemic problems and issues and how marketing can start tackling that. Rather than creating problems for people and then telling them there's a way to fix it, why not actually genuinely try and fix the problems that currently are around. Like the rise in inflation and how people are really struggling to pay bills. If a company genuinely wants to actually go out and help, it can start creating shared value propositions, start thinking at a community level, rather than thinking I'm going to carry on selling them my anti-rizz shampoo. How can you, with the power of your company, start thinking about that shared value proposition and thinking at that community level? Then we might start tackling the systemic issues. 

Amelie> Looking at the advertising industry, where do you think it is doing well on sustainability? And where is it falling short, or even causing active harm? 

Alexis> I think where the industry is doing really well is with those brands that were born with sustainability at their core like Tony’s Chocolonely. They have an informed marketing team who produces really good campaigns that challenge the narrative. I am so bought into everything that brand stands for, I now take bars of Tony’s Chocolonely along to client meetings because they are such a good conversation starter.
However on the other end of the spectrum, the brands who are trying to transition to a more sustainable operating model are doing a really poor job of marketing. They are trying to be a force for good but continuing to use old methodologies, which is effectively putting a bandage over an already very broken system. The result is excessive greenwashing.
Ultimately, the big challenge we have is that the industry doesn't understand its footprint. And they're never going to move forward until they know how severe it is. 

Amelie> And what do you do when the context is not favourable? For example if you do not have access to sustainable lifestyles where you are. Or, take a country like the UK - fairly well ranked on sustainability and which hosted the last Climate Change Conference, COP26. In March 2022, chancellor Rishi Sunak released his spring statement which compromises the green recovery, while oil and gas companies are profiting from the energy crisis. Meanwhile, citizens are paying for the price of the rising cost of living. How does marketing navigate a context that may not be favourable? 

Alexis> I think it gets back to that community and customer centricity. At the community level, it might not be easy to live such a sustainable life in some countries, but by understanding what those issues are (i.e. if there are rising living costs), that gives you a framework. Start to think less about yourself as a brand and start thinking more about your customer. For example if you own a clothing company, and people are struggling to buy clothes, why don't you offer a repair service? It's that kind of thing where you can still make money, but you're genuinely helping your customers within that space, while still being able to help with sustainable behaviours. 

Just because it doesn't currently exist in society doesn't mean you can't. You could be the brand that starts challenging that narrative. We have got to think about community-level issues and start answering them, and we might actually start to make some headway.

Amelie> Would you be each able to give us one example of what successful sustainable marketing looks like to you?

Michelle> I've always been a big fan of Abel & Cole. I think that they've always focused on the organic side of things, healthy eating and well-being. They've always been very good at communicating everything that they are doing, and they've been around a long time; they do a lot of community projects, they make sure their food isn't wasted and it goes to food banks. They work collaboratively with local companies. It's everything they do - they're thinking about all these pillars we spoke about. 

Alexis> I'm gonna throw a bomb in there. I don't think any brand is doing it 100% well, to be quite honest. I think they do bits of it but I don't think they have that overarching umbrella yet. I don't think anybody is challenging every single marketing decision they make. Some might be doing brilliantly in one spot and yet they're still with a massive carbon footprint on their media spend or something like that. This being said, I definitely think there's some amazing stuff going on that is setting a precedent. 

Amelie> So what actionable takeaway would you like Little Black Book readers to gain from this conversation?

Michelle> For me, I would love you to go to and sign up to our Sustainable Marketing Manifesto and take the 100 points challenge.

Wherever you are, whether you are just starting out on this journey, whether or not you need to drive influence up inwards, you have impact to make. We've actually got an action plan to drive sustainable marketing inwards, upwards and outwards. So inwards is you first, upwards is getting this on the agenda if it's not already there, and then outwards is the communications piece. 

Alexis> Educate yourself. It is just so fundamental and I think from a brand perspective the most important thing is to measure your impact. Find someone that can measure your impact, because you're never going to know where to go if you don't know where you're coming from. 

Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash


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LBB Editorial, Thu, 28 Apr 2022 16:28:13 GMT