Marketing's role in creating a sustainable future

With COP 26 drawing to a close, marketers across all sectors will be thinking about how sustainability affects their company and what they should be doing.

Arguably, we’ve never had such intense focus on sustainability. And while debate rages about the speed of action, we have seen good progress at COP26, with more than 100 world leaders promising to reverse deforestation and to cut methane emissions by 2030. 

But it is the new low carbon emission responsibility for big firms that will probably be uppermost in the minds of many marketers. Under new Treasury rules, most big UK companies will be forced to publish details, by 2023, of how they will move to low-carbon emissions, in line with the UK's 2050 net-zero target. Though not mandatory, the government has said the aim is to increase transparency and accountability, with plans submitted to an expert panel to ensure they are not just ‘spin’. 

Over the years, the responsibility for taking action on sustainability and reducing CO2 emissions has been passed between three groups: the public, businesses and governments. Increasingly informed and empowered, more people than ever are willing to take personal action and have great expectations of what companies need to do: not only in reducing their own CO2 emissions, but also helping customers to do so and putting pressure on governments and other businesses in the supply chain to act. 

The need for companies to act is great than ever, with the focus inevitably on the larger companies. Climate is now the number one topic of interest for ESG investors, according to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment in 2020, and, with the Treasury’s announcement at COP 26, the pressure to act has just intensified. 

So, how should companies approach sustainability and move to action? Firstly, I think it’s critical for businesses to adopt a positive approach and to embrace the business benefits of sustainability throughout the organisation and into marketing and advertising. 

Sustainability has to be about optimism.

Too much of the talk on sustainability is about the symptoms of its absence. And that optimism should be driven by innovation. Forward-thinking companies need to embrace innovation to deliver what consumers need without harming their future. Many of the global brands we work with at Revolt now see sustainability as central to their innovation. Sustainability is becoming the new digital. It’s the first thing to base everything else off. 

At a very basic level, sustainability is less inputs for more output. Innovation is critical in driving this, but it must be done in combination with reduction. In order to be more sustainable and to meet CO2 emission targets, companies have to assess how best to combine innovation and reduction as part of a long term plan. There may be pressures to reduce in the short term, but innovation is better for the long term. For example, companies are under pressure to move away from plastics, but as glass has a much higher carbon footprint, an innovative approach might better in the long term than short-term switching to glass bottles. 

With an understanding of the power of innovation, working in combination with reduction, at Revolt, we believe there are four key phases for action in sustainability:

Firstly, companies need to reveal what they are doing. This is about taking board responsibility, acknowledging financial risk and accounting for impact - it’s critical to be honest in communications and to set a standard of transparency. 

The next phase is all about how to respond. Pledge to a net zero or science-based target. Establish a decarbonisation strategy - start with carbon neutrality across scopes 1 and 2 and work on reducing scope 3 emissions. And conduct a scenario analysis to identify the obstacles or changes you may face. 

The third phases is focused on reshaping. How do you need to change your business in order to respond? What systems changes need to be made - across your business process and supply chains - and what policy changes need to be introduced. 

Finally, comes the reporting phase. Follow The Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure’s recommendations, inform climate disclosure charity CDP of your carbon emissions and work with suppliers to improve their transparency. 

Depending on the size and structure of the company, marketing can and should have an active involvement in theses phases. But regardless of the level of involvement, marketers have a critical role to play. 

The four phases should inform a consumer plan, focusing on what to communicate and how. The key thing to keep top of mind is that just because your company finds it interesting, it doesn’t mean the consumer will. Map out where the company and consumer interest points intersect, and assess whether these are issues that you want to explain or expand upon, or whether you need to restrain or refrain from activity. 

When working out your communications plan, pay close attention to whether your are over or underestimating public knowledge. For example, well over half the population are unclear on what ‘carbon footprint’ actually means. And as with all communication, the rules of brand marketing apply – it must be interesting and/or exciting and you need to consider whether, say, you are engaging via emotion or utility. 

Inevitably, there will be a heightened sense of concern, and possibly anxiety, about how best to address sustainability. Despite all the protests and shouting, we do have time change what we are doing to reduce carbon emissions and to ensure a sustainable future. But we do need to act now. And marketers have a vital role to play in that. 

Peter joined our panel at our last Global Conversation, where we gathered some of the globe's top marketers and sustainability experts to share their thoughts on sustainability and business. You can watch the full webinar below.