“For the first time we must face an unstable and unpredictable planet at exactly the time we are placing our greatest demands on it…” Sir David Attenborough
At the 74th sitting of the United Nations General Assembly, a 16-year-old school girl from Sweden stole the headlines. Her message to adults around the world was clear: You have stolen my dreams and my childhood' But is it really as bad as Greta says? Is she overreacting? The answer, sadly, is no.
Despite the fanfare of the Paris Agreement, we are not on track for 1.5 degrees, nor 2 degrees of warming but a future that’s a lot warmer. You might think this is part of the normal fluctuations of the planet. But you might also notice the vast swathes of the world that are currently suffering from ‘unseasonal’ weather and natural disasters be those deadly wildfires, hurricanes or flooding.
It is connected.
Nature can’t wait
If we carry on the current trajectory scientists predict that a child born today will be in her thirties when she sees the last of the coral reefs disappear, taking with it fish stocks around the world upon which millions of people depend.
By the time she is sixty years old, the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides will have killed off soil microorganisms and pollinating insects and there will be no more fertile soil – which means no more harvests. As she reaches her eighties, our planet could be 4 degrees warmer, rendering large parts of the Earth uninhabitable.
These are the predictions from scientists, economists and world leaders in Our Planet: Our Business a new film inspired by the Our Planet Netflix series. Given those predictions, you can quite see why the children of this world are worried. But as the film points out it’s not just our children who will be affected.
The brands we've built in the last 60 years are also at stake
Johan Rockström, one of the world’s leading climate scientists explains that during the last 12,000 years we have enjoyed a Garden of Eden that has allowed our civilisations to flourish. During this period “the average mean temperature on Earth fluctuates… since the last Ice Age until today, plus/minus one degree Celsius.” We are above that already today.
In the past 50 years, we have significantly accelerated our human impact on the planet. We have exploited our resources at alarming rates, putting unsustainable pressures on the planet to the extent that a new geological epoch has been defined: ‘the age of humans’.
The media often focus on climate change, but what isn’t often highlighted are the dire consequences of nature loss that is happening on an epic scale around the world due to our insatiable desire for resources. We are currently destroying crucial landscapes and biodiversity at a frightening speed yet these landscapes and biodiversity are what helps us to maintain planetary stability.
As Rockström warns “We are at risk of entering a danger zone where we could trigger irreversible and self-amplifying change.” Or put it another way – we are at risk of destabilising the whole planet.
WWF's Living Planet Report, which collates the data from leading scientists, warns that global populations of wild animals have declined on average by 60% in the past 50 years. Some species is as much as 95%. That’s since The Marketing Society was created. This destruction is happening on our watch. As wildlife populations continue to fall, we lose the ‘ecosystem services’ that they currently provide: the recycling of nutrients, the vital pollination, and so on.
It isn’t just the polar bears who will be affected
As the world’s biodiversity decreases, the things we take for granted also start to disappear: clean water, reliable crops, productive soil, healthy forests, a benign climate, productive seas and stable supply chains.
As Bren Smith, former fisherman explains when he witnessed the cod stock crash in Newfoundland in 1992, thousands of people were thrown out of work almost overnight. The economy and culture that had been created for hundreds of years was wiped out. In Bren’s words “That was the real wakeup call… that’s where I began to understand that there’ll be no jobs on a dead planet.” He’s now a driving force in a new era of sustainable businesses.
We are the first generation to know for certain that we are putting the whole planet at risk, but we are also the last that can do anything about it.
Where does that leave the future of marketing?
In the next 60 years marketing needs to tackle the elephant in the room: how can we sell more products on a finite planet with finite resources? The switch from plastic to paper straws is missing the scale of what we need to do. Plastic is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. As Kate Raworth, author of the seminal book Doughnut Economics explains: “Every company needs to turn the lens on itself” and figure out its place in the world.
Luckily the youth of today might be the motivating force for change. The new generation of millennial customers is far savvier and more demanding of the brands they choose than the last. A QR code or a unique immersive experience is missing the point of attracting this audience long-term.
Are you woke?
According to the 2019 Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, if you ask older generations what the purpose of business is, they say it’s to make money. But if you ask millennials, 47 per cent believe the purpose of business is to improve society and protect the environment. This is a seismic change. It means that if you want to win over millennial customers (and attract the top talent to work for your brand), you need more than a clever marketing campaign.
But what people tend to forget when they talk about millennials is not just their ideals, but how much money they stand to inherit. As the founder of venture capital fund Fifty Years points out in Our Planet: Our Business, it’s not just about attracting millennial customers and future talent, it’s also about attracting the “$30 trillion of capital that is currently being given to the millennials by the baby boomers”.
There’s the business case.
It’s not about incremental change
Over the past 60 years, the marketing machine has become incredibly sophisticated. Focus grouping and testing its way into every aspect of our day-to-day lives. The next 60 years of marketing should be asking the question the youth all over the world are asking - why are we doing what we’re doing?
What is the purpose of marketing when faced with a planetary emergency? Does it still make sense to invest £1m in a brand new ergonomic new packaging or eye-tracking ad technology, when that money could be spent saving an entire species or planting a forest?
If marketing isn’t careful, it risks being out of touch with its customers and not tackling the very real challenges we will face in the coming years: how to bring back our stable climate, clean air, water and thriving wildlife. I’d like to see the next 60 years of marketing becoming more about sustainable consumerism and how to empower and engage customers on the issues that affect our survival.
It won’t be easy
Marketing has to ask the business some tough questions. As Raworth explains “we’ve got an economic system that depends upon growing forever, but how does that reconcile itself with a thriving planet?” This can’t be about greenwashing or jumping on the nature bandwagon to sell more ‘stuff’.
“For companies aspiring to be global citizens, saving life on Earth is a legitimate business goal.” Cristianne Close, WWF Markets Practice Leader
Sustainability is a cultural shift within an organization that marketing can enable to best serve its customers and their future needs. That was the original purpose of marketing after all. Those willing to tackle these big issues will be able to look back and say that they were there when it mattered most. As Cristianne Close WWF Markets Practice Leader says: “For companies aspiring to be global citizens, saving life on Earth is a legitimate business goal.”
So how can marketing help?
Imagine if Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg had the marketing budgets many CMOs do today. If they did, they could bring the solutions we know will work to millions and trillions of people at once and we would see real change at scale and at speed.
Here are 5 ways that marketing can help:
- Changing behavior and habits: The skills used to get people to buy 100 pairs of sneakers or upselling at the till can easily be turned to supporting what we do need – to encourage people to recycle, not to waste water, to always choose sustainably sourced wood, paper, fish, meat and palm oil, and to hasten the move to sustainable consumption.
- Engage with procurement and CSR to ensure that sustainability is being embedded throughout the organization not just championed by one lone department. This new generation of customers are already more conscious about what they buy and where they buy it. Marketing needs to be involved earlier on to ensure that they’re building trust and not left with the proverbial bill.
- Challenge other departments to create products that are inherently more circular. Brands who take responsibility for the materials in their products (not just the products themselves) and whole of the cycle – repair, replace and recycle – or the ones who invent new leasing models to reduce the pressure on our natural resources – will be tackling all of these big issues at once. Companies like Patagonia are already making a selling point of this and creating brand loyal customers over a lifetime.
- Measure the environmental impact of each campaign you run. WWF has strict environmental criteria for each campaign we do and what it consumes, produces and wastes, but also what impact it has on the planet. For example, always specify sustainably sourced or recycled materials over virgin resources, non-toxic materials and insisting our suppliers meet certain environmental standards. Other global brands can set standards for themselves that are equally rigorous.
- Be a spokesperson for nature and use your reach for good. Promote the ‘free’ ecosystem services on which your business, our economies and prosperity depend. This can’t be about greenwashing, but instead messaging that is backed by real, tangible and meaningful change. This will build both consumer trust and business purpose.
The good news is, we still have time to act. The bad news is, there isn’t much time. Many of us, including Sir David believe “What we do in the next 10 years will profoundly impact the next few thousand”.
In 2020, world leaders will make key decisions on the future of the environment, climate and sustainable development that will set the agenda for the next crucial decade. Just as a strong business voice helped secure the Paris Climate Agreement, progressive businesses supporting coalitions like Business for Nature could now shape the politics of biodiversity and supercharge global efforts to reverse nature loss. 2020 is a super year for both climate and nature, but also for people.
The way that marketing departments respond to the planetary emergency will define not only the next 60 years of marketing, but the future of the planet.
Our Planet: Our Business is a new 40-minute film created by WWF and Silverback Films, inspired by the Emmy® Award-winning Our Planet Netflix series. Screen it for your staff or colleagues to help them understand the issues and what’s at stake with ‘business as usual’. #ourplanetourbusiness
Only business unusual can save us now by Cristianne Close, WWF Markets Practice Leader, Delfin Ganapin, WWF Governance Leader, and Margaret Kuhlow, WWF Finance Practice Leader.
To read about the state of nature WWF’s Living Planet Report or IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services are a good place to start.
This article was taken from issue 3 of Marketing Society members-only publication EMPOWER. Find out more here and see past articles here (please note some articles are open to the public and some are for members only.)