Matthew Keegan
Jun 25, 2024

Can marketing reconcile its growth and sustainability goals?

Many CMOs are stuck in the paradigm of growth at all costs. But the concepts of 'green growth' and 'degrowth' to counter traditional profit-making structures are slowly making waves in an attempt to mould climate-responsible corporations.

Can marketing reconcile its growth and sustainability goals?
David Attenborough, the famous TV environmentalist said: “We have a finite environmentthe planet.  Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist."
In many respects, the advertising industry is a likely culprit for being that 'madman'promoting, at times, consumption and growth at all costs even amid a worsening climate crisis. Most recently, the head of the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for every country to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies who he described as “godfathers of climate chaos” that had “shamelessly greenwashed” with massive advertising campaigns. 
As the UN head has pointed out, there can be no denying that the advertising industry has played a significant role in fuelling climate disaster, and it’s getting away with it. Overconsumption is inevitable when adverts are so ubiquitous and sophisticated. But will the industry change?  
"The ad industry can and must look beyond growth as the sole metric for success," says Jonathan Wise, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors, a network of advertising insiders working to tackle climate change. "We can redesign our businesses to bring other metrics of success into the heart of what we do. We can become ‘growth agnostic’ and reorient our business towards planetary and human wellbeing goals."
United Nation's Secretary-General António Guterres recently called for every country to ban advertising from fossil fuel companies.

How to get there remains the key question. It will be no easy feat. After all, consumerism is the consequence of the modern capitalist economic system that has been the dominant global economic paradigm over the last 70 years. The system is characterised by shareholder supremacy, and the responsibility of business leaders to maximise profits by any legal means necessary, with a short-term (quarterly) mindset. How can an industry like advertising—so oriented towards the globalised system of capitalism-on-steroids, growth-at-all-costs philosophy—reconcile growth and climate crisis objectives?

"Historically, our economy’s primary measure of success has been growth. That’s true for the ad industry as it is for all other categories," says Stephan Loerke, CEO of the World Federation of Advertisers. "The challenge we’re all now facing is how we integrate environmental and societal impacts alongside financial metrics. That’s a huge challenge."

But Loerke is deeply convinced that CMOs and their teams can be key partners in accelerating that transition.

"They [CMOs] are uniquely placed to pre-empt and embrace the opportunities of the climate transition with product innovations and new business models. A growing number of leading CMOs are proving that responsible growth (as part of a regenerative economy) can account for environmental and societal metrics alongside financial,” he says.

Does 'green growth' really exist?

The OECD defines 'green growth' as "fostering economic growth and development, while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies."

"I think ‘green growth’ can exist," says Suzy Goulding, head of sustainability APAC and MEA, Publicis Groupe. "We live in a capitalist and growth-driven society whether we like it or not, but we need to be much more mindful about the products and services we're creating and selling."

Goulding believes APAC is still behind the curve when it comes to making sustainability a priority in product and service innovation, as well as marketing and advertising those products and services.

"We’re seeing much more of this in Europe and the US where legislation is driving sustainable change but I believe the tide is starting to turn here in APAC as well, although a bit more legislation would certainly help. While progress is slower here, we are actively encouraging our clients in Asia to adopt a similar approach using the solutions and processes we’ve developed to take them on a similar journey to their European counterparts."

But some remain unconvinced that green growth is a viable option for the ad industry as they ultimately believe that selling consumption can't be decoupled from environmental impact.

"Continued growth, even 'green' growth, requires continued consumption which requires the continued conversion of our finite natural world into goods and services," says David Murphy, founder of ReWild Projects. "The clearest pathway to reconcile this is for businesses themselves to adopt regenerative business models. This isn't easy, but the sooner businesses can shift their model to fully act in service of life (rather than growth), the quicker we will see a transition to a more sustainable way of being."


Andy Wilson, founder of Singapore-based sustainability-focused agency Early Majority, says that while green growth is promising lower-emission alternatives, there is no evidence that this will reduce the total amount of consumption, energy usage, usage of fossil fuel and mineral extractions, emissions and minerals, in time to avert catastrophic climate change.  

"Currently, sustainability and growth are incompatible goals for many companies in many categories," says Wilson. "However, this need not be the case. There are encouraging signs in some sectors of a 'sustainability tipping point'—which occurs when a more sustainable technology delivers better category performance with equal or better price or convenience—therefore representing better value for money."

Wilson adds there's a multi-trillion phase of 'sustainability innovation' underway, including technologies such as renewable energy, electric vehicles and alternative proteins.

Certainly, in some industries, particularly in the high-impact start-up space, there are signs that growth can be decoupled from environmental impact. Plus, circular business models, new material innovations, and novel energy transformation technologies do show promising results. But these are mostly exemptions from the rule. 

"I do see new exciting companies being born sustainable or trying to disrupt conservative industries," says Thomas Kolster, founder and director of The Goodvertising Agency. "Take Pangaia as an example. It’s a material science company trying to inspire and showcase a new way forward for fashion. But, overall, as an industry, we’re primarily supporting the old industries and their desperate attempt to cling on to status quo. For a creative industry, we’re staunchly conservative in our ways."

Meanwhile, there's a number of leaders who advocate that nothing but a system and managed 'degrowth' policy is required to reduce emissions and mineral usage to avoid climate catastrophe and social collapse.  

"Degrowth is gaining acceptance and popularity among many leaders and some policy makers, particularly in Europe," says Wilson. "It represents a radical alternative to the current model of capitalism and is therefore currently anathema to most private companies and their agencies."

Ultimately, proponents of the degrowth theory argue that if economic growth continues to be the default goal, it will lead to a climate catastrophe.

"My thoughts, as a communications professional, when I first heard of this degrowth theory were: This is going to be a really hard sell," says Marta Bigio, SVP, sustainability lead, APAC, Weber Shandwick. "While I agree that we need to inform and connect people to new possibilities that sometimes go beyond consumption, I still think it’s possible to decouple growth from negative impacts. Fortunately, there are significant examples where this decoupling was successful. This is true both at the country level and the corporate level."


Leo Rayman, founder of EdenLab, a green growth consultancy, says that you can grow clean, green brands at the expense of dirty ones. In fact, as a right-thinking marketer, you have a duty to. 

"There are different ways to take action against climate breakdown, you can protest against polluting companies or you can use business as an activist tool and beat them fair and square on product superiority price and sustainability. All our work is focused on creating and switching demand for cleaner, greener products, brands and businesses. It’s a classic conquest strategy,” he says.

How to be an effective ad agency in a time of climate change

The UN has sounded a ‘red alert’ about global warming, and leading scientists have found that ongoing high emissions of warming gases mean the world is moving closer to breaching the symbolic 1.5C warming mark on a longer-term basis.

At this juncture, when we know the role the ad industry plays in promoting consumption is fuelling climate disaster, many believe it's crucial that we reimagine advertising and its role in the future.

"We can and must redefine what it means to be an effective advertising agency, one which uses its creativity to drive sustainable lifestyles and behaviours and support regenerative businesses," says Wise. "What is needed urgently is to ramp up everyone’s level of knowledge industry-wide. So everyone in the industry has the skills required to help mitigate the impacts of the climate emergency."

Attenborough has famously said that “saving our planet is now a communications challenge”. 

"If this is true, there’s no one better than the brilliant strategic and creative people that make up our industry to bring about the consciousness and behaviour change required to make human life on earth sustainable," says Simon Lee, chief creative officer and joint owner at The Hallway. "When this becomes a KPI with a marketing budget the size of P&G’s, Unilever’s or L’Oreal’s, we’ll smash it, and the reward will be infinitely more important and satisfying than a Gold anything in our trophy cabinets." 

Will the industry change?

Infinite economic growth based on the use of finite planetary resources in a linear model of consumption is no longer viable. But is the marketing industry waking up to this? And does it want to change?

"It’s easy to think that things won’t ever change because we’re so stuck in today’s reality," says Rayman. "But the tipping point is coming, inevitably. For example, simultaneous harvest failures on three continents will be the sort of event that makes everyone sit up and take notice. The question is how soon is that coming—no one knows but it’s probably sooner than you realise."

"Advertising, like every other part of the consumption-based economy, is changing to support a sustainable economy," says Stephen Woodford, chief executive, Advertising Association.

Woodford says there is plentiful evidence. These include normalising the ownership of an EV to replace petrol cars, encouraging the choice of plant-based foods to reduce meat consumption, promoting renewable energy providers, replacing fast-fashion choices with other options such as pre-loved clothing, introducing the concepts of renting products rather than owning them, and presenting solutions to challenges that we need to solve such as how to reduce food waste or choosing a sustainable way to travel.

"The challenge the world faces won’t be solved through one campaign," adds Woodford. "It will be solved by many, many advertising campaigns which help present all kinds of sustainable choices to people as they live their lives."

There's no question that advertising is an important influencer of cultural norms, and plays a role in shaping the things that people deem to be desirable. "Every piece of creative that agencies put in front of their clients presents an opportunity to shape the behaviours that people consider ‘normal’," says Loerke. "Ad agencies will no doubt play a key role by partnering with their clients to reimagine marketing’s role within business and society and help make marketing part of the solution. The age-old phrase ‘it takes a village’ has never been more true."

Dominic Powers, chief growth officer for APAC at Dentsu, says that for the ad industry to thrive in the long term and remain resilient, it will need to find new ways to build brands, taking into account the well-being of people and the planet alongside shifting consumer needs and desires. 

He adds: "As an industry, we have the power to influence the human behind the consumer towards more sustainable behaviours and choices, while at the same time, helping brands to transform business models, and to innovate in the area of product design, so as to uplift the lives of the communities, while helping to improve planetary boundaries."


Campaign Asia

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