As the reality of the climate crisis has become more apparent, businesses across the advertising industry have stepped up their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint, promote planet-friendly behaviour and galvanise the public. However, in many cases the industry has approached the ethical and practical challenges in an oddly siloed way. On the one hand, vocally making climate pledges and proactively cutting down the environmental impact of activities like production - but on the other, continuing to take money from and promoting highly polluting clients, thus facilitating greenwashing.
Instead of viewing sustainability as a standalone box to tick, writer, communications and sustainability consultant Amélie Lambert reckons that the industry needs to recognise that all the existential issues facing society are deeply interconnected. And in many ways, the ad industry is right at the centre. Take the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has made the threat of food and fuel insecurity in Europe all too real. Holding companies have quickly shut down their Russian operations, after years of promoting our dependency on fossil fuel. On the other hand, the industry is facing a much talked about ‘talent crisis’ - and the irreconcilable cognitive dissonance of promoting wasteful overconsumption while in the same breath promoting purpose and social good is just too much.
With all that in mind, Amélie is determined to get a true 360 view of the intersection between creativity and sustainability. Over the coming weeks, she’ll be interviewing some of the people around the industry pushing for change in a series that’s all about joining the dots. But first, Amélie introduces her own sustainability journey and the motivation behind the series.
LBB> How did you get into the world of sustainability?
Amélie> That's an interesting question - the "get into'' part. The short answer is: both by design, and by chance (at least in terms of the timing).
Having talked to so many others in the last few years who, like me, have pivoted to positions that would allow them to be part of the solution, we all come back to the same core: a general need or want to have a positive impact (and thinking what legacy we’re leaving behind, such a deeply human trait).
Personally, much of it was about finding that alignment (the famous Japanese concept of Ikigai which I find so inspiring!) between long standing core values and doing what makes my heart sing; skill set, background and experience; and projecting where I want to be/what I can do to help solve current pressing challenges.
I got a timely push over the edge in the form of redundancy at the end of 2019 and shortly after enrolled for a short online course by the CISL (Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership) on Business Sustainability Management. It was a bit of a mad transition, from this very intense learning phase and getting my certificate and soon after, the first COVID-19 induced lockdown. There was a weird limbo phase navigating homeschooling and starting a business in and out of lockdowns, but I took that opportunity to reflect deeply to reconnect with my Why, find that Ikigai and what was next. Also one of the greatest things coming out of the CISL is a brilliant support network without which I’m not sure I would have dared becoming my own boss!
One element inherent to working in or advocating for sustainable development is that it’s always a journey - a learning journey, an ongoing transformation. Everyone has a different entry point.
A necessary part of this journey is to deliberately unlearn a lot of values and paradigms we take for granted. It always starts with a question. What can I do from my position? How can I/we help? are recurring ones.
LBB> Much of your focus is on the role of communications which can help (or hinder) the transition to a more sustainable society - why is that your focus?
Amélie> I think it’s very much a part of who I am and what I do - joining the dots, bringing people together and building bridges in general. But “communication” is so versatile and has so many applications which is what I love about it. For example I love writing, it’s both a mindfulness exercise and helps me to process things, as well as to translate complex topics in an easy accessible way I can wrap my own head around - which is very much an ongoing challenge of sustainability comms.
I’ve also always been fascinated by language(s) - verbal and non verbal - and how we express ourselves across the globe, how we communicate with each other and the challenges thereof.
Last but not least, storytelling is such a fascinating and intrinsic part of who we are as a species. A good story told well takes us whole - mind, heart and soul. And it’s no secret I love our creative sector, so it’s a truly stimulating task for me to try to help our industry of master storytellers pivot and channel what we do best for better purposes!
LBB> What inspired the interview series you're going to do?
Amélie> Initially the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, with friends affected first hand and sharing their disarray. With that same question “what can I do to help?” then also “what is the most impactful action we could possibly take collectively?”
Now that I’m further along the journey, I recognise individual and collective actions are crucial, but so is working at a systemic level since everything is related. Unsustainable development, deep inequalities, changing weather patterns, conflicts and migrations, our heavy reliance on oil and gas (and thus our real position of vulnerability when it comes to economic recovery and taking action against petrostates and autocrats) are all part of one picture. And seeing all the dots within that big picture, as well as knowing the challenges our varied industry activists are working on, this striking question came to mind: “is Advertising inadvertently funding the Ukrainian war?”. Hopefully we’ll seek to answer that as we go, but the links are clear and we’re here to join those and many other dots.
LBB> Looking at the advertising industry, where do you think it's doing well on sustainability and where is it falling short, or even causing active harm?
Amélie> This is a big and complex question to disentangle! So this needs many varied perspectives to give you a full picture, perhaps a good common question to ask our next change makers.
From my standpoint, many industry folk have known about or experienced the industry's dissonance when it comes to social and environmental impacts for a long time - hence why so many have been leaving the sector over time to wine making or whatever else.
From a bird’s eye view, two key points come to mind:
First of all, the system or context. Change is hard at the best of times. Our brains seek both the familiar, and to save energy which is why they’re so efficient at repeating patterns. Change demands a conscious, deliberate rewiring and repeating whole new patterns until these become the ‘new norm’ and the brain becomes efficient at repeating those.
So if you want behaviour change, you have to make it easy. But when the context isn’t supporting those changes, when the way things are done around you are inherently unsustainable? Well then change is extra hard as you are literally pushing against the tide.
Advertising and Marketing are paid to amplify existing norms and systems (e.g. 'sell more', faster; more growth and quarterly margins), not to change them. Currently, these norms and systems are rooted in extraction and exploitation, overconsumption and a linear take-make-waste economy geared for infinite growth (GDP being the main measure of success), on a planet which has finite resources.
A ‘just transition’ needs a mindset shift and an ambitious vision, but often requires a profound transformation of a business model for example in order to achieve real gender equality across an organisation, a truly diverse and inclusive culture and to become zero waste, zero carbon. These have often been done as a box-ticking exercise or as ‘plug-ins’, which is why the industry got the issue of Diversity so wrong all those years ago, at the time not much more than a buzzword.
That’s why one of the first things you learn in sustainability is how interconnected our complex, wicked challenges are - and thus, how important it is to approach issues holistically.
We talk about ‘systems-change’, which can feel a little abstract but is especially important when you consider many people and businesses are just trying to survive or pay the bills. For example, many don’t have the luxury to turn down a job if it means it’ll pay salaries and keep the business afloat for another year. In a wider global context, many people simply don’t have the option to afford, or even access sustainable choices in the first place. If cutting a tree means you put food on the table, or if drinking out of plastic bottles is the only way you can access clean water, well that’ll be that.
This is why human rights and social issues such as ending poverty, access to education, gender equality and diversity and inclusion are such an important foundation of sustainability.
Secondly and on the up side, as advertising is such a powerful behavioural influencer and because storytelling is so deeply rooted in what it means to be human, we have in our hands one of the most impactful levers of change. So much of the work now is about communicating sustainability effectively, inspiring positive action and showing us HOW we can transition in ways we can all grasp. Some of you might have read Peter Kalmus’ article which did the rounds on social media at the end of last year: “I’m a climate scientist. Don’t Look Up captures the madness I see every day”. It’s a great and insightful read - but on point here, his conclusion stuck with me: “More and better facts will not [save us], but more and better stories might.”
LBB> Is it an exaggeration to say that the climate crisis, rising cost of living, rise of mental health problems, social injustice are all interlinked and that advertising has a part to play in all of it?
Amélie> It’s not an exaggeration - far from it - it’s the reality. That’s essentially what the UN Sustainable Development Goals are about - breaking our social, environmental and economic challenges into chunks (17 of them) but recognising how integrated and interconnected they all are. As the formidable Christiana Figueres points out, that’s good news as each one you tackle impacts positively on others.
Of course the advertising industry has a part to play in it. Not least because of our creative storytelling superpower mentioned above. But also - what exactly are we amplifying and giving the oxygen of publicity to? What do we want to amplify? How can we educate ourselves, and become change agents and advocates for a new paradigm? Every single one of us can do something from our own position, whatever that might be. Hopefully, this series will enlighten this point further.
LBB> Quite often, agencies take a fairly siloed view of sustainability - attempting to minimise their carbon footprint or investing in green production on one hand while advertising high polluting clients like petrochemical companies - why do you think this is?
Amélie> Hopefully I’ve answered this already but I could add this: still seeing elements as siloed / dualist / through the lens of the existing dominant narrative as opposed to part of the same, interconnected picture is generally a good indicator that the necessary mindset shift or holistic approach hasn’t occurred yet - or not in the right way I think!
LBB> And how would you advise them to take a more holistic approach?
Amélie> Here would be a way to summarise this: Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to eradicate poverty and achieve prosperity for all, within the means of the planet’s finite natural resources. As many already know, sustainability is a transformative journey - and as such, beyond tackling systems-change, it is also a lens through which to see and consider everything.
An authentic transformation towards sustainable development needs to happen at the very core of the business, with every single business decision then informed by - and taken through the lens of - sustainability. You can also feel it internally throughout the company culture and externally from a customer perspective.
One key issue with a lot of the mega networks and big corporations in general, is that their WHY or purpose has gone fuzzy or has completely disappeared throughout the varied growth and management change phases. Real positive impact will not only come from the fact that sustainability is embedded at the very core of the business (this also implies a CSO with real decision-making power felt across the business, not a plug-in sustainability department), but that it’s also woven in the company purpose - provided the company has a very clear sense of why they exist and why they do what they do.
LBB> What are you personally hoping to learn in the course of this series? And what do you hope readers take from it?
Amélie> The idea of this Sustainability x Advertising series is to join the dots between the different initiatives, pressing social and environmental issues and the role of advertising & creativity within it all. That’s the bird eye view (or the trunk, depending how you want to look at it).
The goal is to bring awareness to - and better understand - the different initiatives and varied issues (and their interconnectedness) - so both educational and to allow for honest and timely conversations to take place. The varied actors at play - Clean Creatives, Purpose Disruptors, Conscious Advertising Network and sustainable marketing experts to begin with - will help to bring the pieces (of sustainability in the context of our industry and beyond) together.
I can’t wait to dive into their varied challenges and perspectives. We learn so much from each other, and the wicked challenges of our times require collaborative efforts from multiple angles.
I hope this starts and feeds into the wider, important conversations and that more people join the movement. Every single person is in a unique position to do something - often it’s just about finding what that unique position is, and how they can best use it to help.
Amélie is a writer, communication specialist and sustainability consultant.
With over 12 years experience in the Advertising industry including in press, events and in production, she works at the intersection between creativity and sustainability, her area of predilection.
As an industry insider, Amélie collaborates with other advertising, media, film and tech change agents to help accelerate the transition to conscious marketing. Past work includes designing Ad Net Zero Essentials for the Advertising Association; and the creation of the Planet Positive category for the 1.4 Awards, to highlight those brilliant films that inspire climate action and positive change.
Amélie is also co-founder of an alliance of sustainability professionals with a wide variety of expertise, working with organisations to accelerate the just transition and create a positive impact on society and the planet.
Amélie is certified in Business Sustainability Management by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL); she also holds a double masters in International Law and Anglo-American legal studies, and a Bachelors in Media Law, Intellectual property and Environmental Law.