Advertising can lead the charge on climate change. Here's how

Prince William asked a good question. We need to have the answer.

Last week, the World Economic Forum got woke. Although the climate crisis has been a dark cloud on the horizon for some time now, 2019 is the year the world’s political and business leaders officially put the issue at the top of their "worry list". And you didn’t have to battle the snow at Davos to hear Prince William ask Sir David Attenborough the question of our time: "Why has it taken so long for those in key positions of leadership… to act on environmental challenges?"

The interview between Wills and the nation’s favourite broadcaster soon travelled around the world, because it hit a nerve. With 2018 being a year so defined by extreme weather events, the evidence for climate crisis is indisputably all around us. So Prince William has a very valid point and it’s time we turned the question on ourselves: why the hell are advertising leaders taking so long to wholeheartedly sink their teeth into resolving climate crisis?

One of the biggest challenges in addressing the climate crisis is using communications effectively enough to drive a call to action. And – ta dah – this is an area in which we excel. Thanks to our brilliant communications skills, we have immense potential to go beyond lip service and make a real difference. So why aren’t advertising’s leaders stepping up to the plate?

Just look at the impact Unilever’s Unstereotype initiative has had on gender equality. Perfectly timed to coincide with the #MeToo movement, Unstereotype dragged advertising’s culpability into the limelight to such an extent that, from June this year, advertisers will be banned from presenting gender stereotypes that "are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence".

It’s such a culturally significant move that the announcement made headline news in all the mainstream media. If we apply the same skillset and passion to the climate crisis, we could replicate Unstereotype’s success.

Of course, many brands and agencies should be applauded for already trying to tackle the thorny subject of climate change. From Volvo’s "The day the ocean went away" book (pictured above) to TBWA\London’s "Plastic & chips" initiative, many of us are taking steps in the right direction. But there’s still a misconception that doing your bit means jumping on the environmental bandwagon in a Gillette-style cultural hijacking.

For every legitimate brand initiative, there’s an empty one. People are wising up to greenwashing and often feel cynical when a brand starts shouting about its environmental creds. Even Iceland, which aced Christmas with its "Rang-tan" campaign, is now feeling the heat after being accused of circumventing its own palm oil ban by removing offending own-label products.

So we need to do more. But how?

Well, thanks to the celebrated environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev, there is an answer. In his book Corporation 2020, he makes a compelling case for "responsible advertising": a traffic-light system that operates in a similar way to that used for food-labelling, but instead of alerting buyers to fat, sugars and salt, it highlights how long a product will last, where its materials come from and whether it can be recycled.

This framework gives us a chance to make a tangible difference to the climate crisis. If we treat "consumers" more as citizens, they will increasingly make purchasing decisions based on brands’ ethical creds, meaning market forces would push advertisers into cleaning up their supply chains and working practices. That would create much more impact than using marketing to merely start or support a debate.

And for an industry that’s so obsessed with reaching the fabled millenials and Gen Z, responsible advertising taps right into their demand for purposeful brands. For proof that the climate crisis is top of mind for younger generations, look no further than 16-year-old Greta Thunberg.

Fortunately, with Sukhdev’s responsible advertising framework, there is hope. Advertising’s leaders no longer need to sit back in despair and justify their inaction by saying: "But what can we do about it?" So if Cannes is our Davos, let’s take action now to make sure Prince William’s question can’t be repeated on the Croisette this year.

Chris Gorell Barnes is chief executive and founder of Adjust Your Set and co-founder of Blue Marine Foundation

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