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The grey context for green advertising

Change is constant but so is our resistance to it. Therefore, a relentless state of tension is what really defines human behaviour. This is verified by homoeostasis, in which living organisms will self-regulate to remain constant. It explains why it is so hard to form new habits and even harder to break away from them. 

It’s also why, to drive real behaviour change, effective advertising must be more than just a creative message; it needs an appropriate media channel that frames and delivers it accordingly. 

Context can have a strong effect on how that message is received. If an advertisement is shown next to a news story, for example, the story topic may influence both attitude toward the message and ease of message recall. 

The media channel itself and consumers’ perceptions of that channel exert a similar but subtler and even more powerful effect exerted through the advertisement itself. 

Any message (and the medium used to convey it) emerges as a unified and inseparable whole. To divide this whole into different units of analysis is to misrepresent how the advertisement appears to the receiver.

Green marketing gets a bit more complex – for instance is paper more environmentally damaging than, say, digital media?

When it comes to green marketing, things get a bit more complex. Perception of what may be a “greed medium” will often confirm our own biases and not necessarily inform reality and reveal the truth. 

For instance, consumers generally perceive paper-based advertising as a commercial activity that creates environmental problems. Obviously, a message communicated by paper pamphlet denouncing the use of paper for advertising, will likely cause a negative response to the message. 

But is paper more environmentally damaging than, say, digital media?

 A 2006 independent report from the US Energy Information Administration showed that over 7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases associated with print media advertising were emitted into the atmosphere by the United States. 

The idea that digital media is a greener alternative was then debunked by a Greenpeace study that projected that, by 2020, US data centres will use more electricity than France, Brazil, Canada and Germany combined. 

To put that in perspective we need to understand that, on average, each kilowatt hour of energy represents the emission of about nearly 1 kilogram of CO2.  

Now consider the Empire State Building’s 11.3million cubic metres of space. The combined emissions of US papermaking, data-centres and client energy demand alone would fill over 100 Empire State Buildings with solidified CO2 (dry ice) each year. 

In the UK, advertising (of all media channels combined) is responsible for 2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually, equivalent to heating 50 per cent of London’s social housing.   

With that in mind, back in December 2010, sustainability consultants, Envido, in partnership with Heineken and Honda publicly unveiled CarbonTrack™, the world’s first credible, universal tool designed to calculate the carbon footprint of advertising campaigns.  

Under development for over a year CarbonTrack measures the carbon output of an advertising campaign throughout its entire lifecycle, from concept to set-up to breakdown –  or simply, from cradle to grave. 

T his represents an unprecedented first step towards more sustainable brand communications enabling valid and reliable metrics that unfortunately few have made use of until now. 

Taking the above in consideration, it’s easy to see why the marketing of green brands can be so hard to execute. A recent research led by Diana Ivanova from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, revealed that only around 20 per cent of emissions for which we are individually responsible come from direct usage, such as driving a car or having a shower. 

The rest is all hidden in the supply chains of what we buy. And between production and purchase lies promotion, powered by media advertising. 

It is encouraging to see messages such as the City of Melbourne campaign inviting people to cycle more. But what was the carbon footprint involved in doing that? 

What are the “hidden” supply chain costs and impact? 

And, can that message offset the environmental impact it caused itself on top of addressing the bigger issue it attempts at addressing? 

In the one hand it is better to communicate a solution to the issue (that iscycling) than not. On the other hand, if the communication contributes to the problem more than the solution, then what’s the point of it?!

Another example is Renault’s current campaign in Bucarest, Romania, encouraging people to buy it’s EV Zoe. A digital billboard connected to pollution sensors and powered by a custom-made algorithm was created to give price discounts corresponding to levels of pollution at any given time of day.

Undoubtedly a very clever execution that may even drive a sales lift and become a contender to the coveted Cannes Lions SDG award, but does it actually make Bucarest, Europe’s second most polluted city less polluted? 

Finally, even sustainability champions such as Unilever, widely known for its green efforts may be falling on the veneer trap. After spotting a LinkedIn comment from the company’s sustainability lead talking about their commitment to recycling-reusing-composting, I decided to call out on the effort with a lil’ help from Scientific American as you can see below. 

Rather than petulance or opportunism, mine is also a customer’s genuine voice against the lie that wasteful consumers cause the problem of plastic pollution and that changing our individual habits can fix it.   

Now what?! 

This is one of those wicked problems where every solution furthers the complexity of the issue. 

Personally, I do believe communications are critical to educating and informing citizens and consumers. 

Professionally, however, there is a lack of universal metrics and shared intention able to help green brands maximise and legitimise their advertising efforts. 

At least, now we know how to compare Earth Hour’s campaign with Officeworks’ Restoring Australia initiative, where two trees get planted for every one used, based on the weight of paper-based products customers bought from the company.  

Moving forward, adapting and adopting energy efficiency rating systems such as BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) as part of the criteria for those buying media would help green advertising to not just walk but march its talk and compel mainstream brands to embed the same metric. 

On the product design front cradle-to-cradle certificates have been around for over a decade, it’s time for brand communications to come to terms that doing less bad not always equate to doing more good and act on it!

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