Growing sustainably

Using its trademark alternative approach, ad agency TBWA is applying ‘disruptive ideas' to turn businesses and consumers on to greater environmental awareness

by Matt Shepherd-Smith, TBWA/London
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

When the UK government announced a plan to reduce the net UK carbon account by 60% by 2050 it also set up a joint parliamentary committee on climate change to determine the feasibility of this target. The committee's response, published a couple of months ago, found that this target was not adequate if we are to prevent global temperatures rising above "dangerous levels". Whatever target we do work towards, it is clear that we, the consumers and corporations, are going to have to radically change what we do.

Sir Nicholas Stern, whose government review on the economics of climate change received wide media coverage last year, came to the agency in September to articulate the nature and scale of the problem, and to point out ‘the consequences of irresponsibility' - and it's scary stuff, even to the most hard-nosed among us. He made the point that growth and sustainability can be bedfellows, and that the challenge to us is not to stop promoting consumption but rather to change the nature of what we consume.

This won't be achieved merely by making sustainability a moral imperative. Being ‘good' is not a sufficient incentive to people, or to profit-hungry corporations. Being told to be good carries an attitude of stick rather than carrot. This should be turned on its head, with thought given to the questions: who are the stakeholders, and how can we tailor the message appropriately?

The focus must be on highlighting real, tangible solutions to business on how to move towards a low-carbon economy while simultaneously improving the bottom line and gaining a competitive advantage. Old-fashioned activist moral-high-ground attitudes are not helpful. Reframe the debate around efficiency and you'll get somewhere.

Too many businesses don't take this seriously. They feign ‘greenness' by playing at the fringes of the problem. It's not enough. They need to take a more fundamental stance and strive to be green at the core of what they are doing. Look at Method as a great example. Method set up as a producer of ethically and environmentally sound cleaning products. It stands for ‘people against dirty', and set out to launch a new company but also to get the big players like Procter & Gamble and Unilever to take notice. Method has forced the global detergents business to change its behaviour quicker than it would have done had they not been prompted.

To make a meaningful impact fast enough, we need voluntary actions that go beyond or pre-empt regulation. Responding with only small-scale initiatives such as travel offset programmes or philanthropic donations will not result in the reductions in emissions that are needed to stop irreversible and chaotic climate changes. We believe that you can't give credible advice to your clients unless you are practising credible solutions yourself.

So what is TBWA doing? We're learning from our clients where we can (The Carbon Trust, E.ON), and working together as a network. Every single one of our 258 network offices is challenged to produce a minimum of 20% less emissions in 2008 than it did in 2006, with specific objectives for each office. Failing to meet its target results in a carbon tax for that office, payable to a central fund that is used to purchase high-quality carbon offset.

We have published a six-step programme for each office to follow, and actions are a key part of our annual business plans. We have also published a list of direct energy-saving actions for businesses and individuals. Finally, we are producing a viral marketing initiative for ‘dothegreenthing.com', an initiative to bring the creativity of the marketing industry to the forefront of solving ecological issues. It's serious but it's fun, so it might just work.

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