Sustainability in Marketing: From Possibility to Reality


thought leadership

In 2021, Carat produced a report titled "Sustainability and Marketing: Our role in tackling the climate crisis." Fast forward two years, and the essence of its findings remains unchanged. Embedding sustainable practices in your business is still a driver of growth, a means of buffeting (if not safeguarding) one’s brand against the disruptive force that is climate change, and fundamentally “the right thing to do”.

In the face of pressing climate challenges, the significance of these principles is magnified, as emphasised in dentsu's 2024 Media Trends report. The report categorises three purpose-led trends under the term "Integrity Economics," showcasing the growing importance of values-driven practices in the evolving landscape.

Integrity Economics signals a shift in mindset. Now, 78% of CMOs agree that, in a world where climate volatility creates economic volatility, there is no longer a disconnect between what is good for society and what is good for business. Trend #10, titled 'More Attention, Fewer Emissions,' reveals that 55% of consumers in the US and Canada expect sustainable businesses to reduce carbon emissions, but believe those companies are falling short of expectations. Climate change is now the second most concerning issue in the UK after the NHS according to Google research – our actions matter to the people we are talking to.

The report's insights indicate a growing expectation for businesses to take meaningful steps toward sustainability. Embedding sustainable practices in your business is not just a key growth driver; it's a shield against the disruptive force of climate change. It's about doing what's fundamentally right, aligning with the ethos of Integrity Economics.

There has been a notable surge in the attention marketers devote to sustainable practices. Key clients now seek detailed reports on the carbon emissions associated with their campaign activities. Briefs are increasingly requesting assistance in showcasing brands' genuine commitment to environmental concerns. Our focus has shifted toward campaigns centred on green technology, behavioural change, or purpose.

However, not all clients prioritise sustainability; many focus on immediate business challenges. In this uncertain environment, the balance between value and values is tested. It's imperative for the industry to reflect: How many campaigns are genuinely planned and measured with sustainability in mind, and are we, as an industry doing enough?

Technology makes it possible

There’s certainly lots going on to help tackle the challenge. The industry has moved quickly to develop tools, metrics and off-setting programmes to reduce the carbon emissions created by marketing activity.

A review of the activity dentsu alone has done in recent years demonstrates the ground covered:

  1. We have created our own carbon calculator, with cradle-to-grave calculation boundaries aligned to the GHG protocol, the leading greenhouse gas accounting standard. It assesses the production, storage, distribution, and end-usage of each interaction.
  2. This calculator has been integrated into our proprietary planning tool, CCS Planner, allowing us to assess the differing impact of plan iterations, and report back to clients on an accurate and consistent number.
  3. Having kickstarted research on The Attention Economy in 2018 we are now using attention metrics and optimisation to ensure campaigns hit objectives on a lower investment and carbon load.

We’re rightly proud of these developments and the difference they make for our clients (and the world), but there’s much more that can be done beyond the remit or capability of any one agency or network. Nobody can solve this in isolation.

Collaboration will make it a reality

If this increased focus and pace of development that we’re seeing at dentsu is being replicated across the marketing ecosystem, then what will shift the dial in 2024?  Well, it’s worth taking a look at what’s happening in other industries.

The first transatlantic flight by an airliner using pure sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) took off from Heathrow on the morning of Tuesday the 28th of November. Virgin Atlantic took the headlines, but as their chief executive Shai Weiss stated, “Getting to this point has been more than a year in the making and taken radical collaboration across our consortium partners and Government.”

Gulfstream Aerospace achieved a similar feat with a business jet earlier in the month, marking a trend in sustainable aviation. Rolls Royce's engines, reengineered for 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), powered the flight. Boeing has procured 7.6 million gallons of SAF for greener US commercial airplane operations since 2022.

Imperial College London and the University of Sheffield led scientific research on the Flight100's climate impact, while ICF and the Rocky Mountain Institute provided sustainable aviation consulting. Virgin Atlantic received up to £1 million from the UK Government in December 2022 for planning and executing the flight.

Flight100 resulted from years of collaborative research and development, highlighting a shared commitment among stakeholders to advance sustainable aviation practices. The marketing and media industry should take heed. Properly using measurement, optimisation and in setting programmes to reduce the carbon footprint of advertising will require consensus, incentives and standardisation.

How to be part of the solution

As per The Pace of Progress Media Trends report, brands should actively cut the carbon footprint in their campaigns, from planning to execution, rather than relying on offsetting, which doesn't address the root cause. Accurate measurement is crucial for setting and tracking goals. Tools like dentsu's Media Carbon Calculator help assess the carbon impact of media plans, both online and offline. This empowers brands to make informed decisions, finding the right balance between sustainability goals and business objectives.

Collaborative efforts allow marketers to pool resources, share best practices, and leverage collective expertise to tackle sustainability challenges. This collaborative approach not only benefits the planet and society but also strengthens brand reputation, enhances consumer trust, and creates a more sustainable future.

We take pride in our efforts to minimise the carbon footprint of campaigns both internally and for our clients. Moving forward, the next crucial step is industry-wide collaboration, involving brands and public bodies. This collective effort is far from a zero-sum game, as we all share the common goal of achieving the same positive outcome.

The Pace of Progress, dentsu’s 14th annual Media Trends report is now live, in which we explore the opportunities, challenges, and intricacies of ten trends expected to set the pace of progress in the coming year. Download your copy of the full report here.

Written by Maddy Sim, Strategy Partner at Carat UK, a dentsu company