For some years now I’ve been looking closely into the themes of sustainability, circular economy and climate change.
I haven’t been steered in this direction by who knows what philanthropic impulse. I simply happened to see ‘Before the Flood’, Leonardo Di Caprio’s documentary film on Netflix.
I’ll keep it short: Di Caprio travels for two years visiting the far corners of the suffering earth. He gathers reliable testimonies from scientists and climatologists, he gets into a panic while listening to them, then edits his material well: you find yourself sitting there clutching the remote pretty much scared out of your wits.
We’re in big trouble. We’ve known that for a while, and if a pandemic hadn’t come along to snap us out of it, the word sustainability wouldn’t be constantly on the tips of our tongues today.
On the one hand I find this heartening: a wave of collective awareness is gathering strength. But on the other it frightens me because the word sustainability risks becoming the umpteenth ear worm, that "easy listening" that those of us in the industry sing on LinkedIn.
We need to make sure “sustainability” doesn’t go the same way as “purpose”, another word dear to us that has merely floated above webinars without ever once putting its feet on the ground.
So, let's take a closer look.
For starters, here’s the official definition:
“Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
Then there’s the framework, the areas we need to impact on if we hope to ward off disaster. It’s called The Triple Bottom Line:
The environment (conservation of natural capital such as earth air and water…), society (cities, our homes, social interactions, health, destitution, education…), the economy (consumption, production, efficiency, profit…). In short, the Three Ps: people, planet and profit, which in extreme synthesis make it clear that if we don’t stop polluting the planet, if we don’t sensitise people so they change their behaviour, if we don’t find alternatives to speculative and consumeristic business solutions, we’ll either be toast or underwater or both.
The deeper I go into this, the clearer it becomes to me that our industry needs to be asking itself some questions.
I’m talking about us. People who make advertising. People who think it up, sell it, buy it or use it.
Does it still make any sense to be people who try to increase consumer opportunity? Or broaden seasonality? Orinvent irresistible promotions where you get eight for the price of two? What’s the point of pitching five agencies against each other, then choosing one? Or stretching Black Friday so far that it becomes Black Two Weeks? Or creating irresistible posts so that we can badger anyone who adds a ‘like’ and foist practically anything on them?
Ethics has nothing to do with it.
We’ve ended up in that episode of Happy Days where Fonzie goes water skiing and jumps over the shark: we’re losing viewers because we’ve gone over the top.
It’s a question of models and willpower, because sustainable consumption is possible.
But those of us in advertising need to leave our webinars immediately. We need to change our ways and start working for the managers and companies who are paving the way by investing in this transformation. They are thinking anew to create ideas that do good. They are driving concepts and consciences: they know how to read the world.
And when somebody asks us whether the campaign we’re presenting is “ownable”, we can proudly answer “no”.
Because it won’t be, and it mustn’t be.
Because inspiring change means offering a direction and hoping that the others will do exactly the same as you.