Matthew Miller
Jun 3, 2021

UN rep to marketers: You can set off the change the world needs on sustainability

Also, if your company fears being accused of greenwashing, maybe don't engage in greenwashing, advise leaders from Unilever and Dole.


If the world is to stop engaging in its "war on nature", consumers, corporations and governments all must play a part. But marketing should also embrace a crucial catalytic role, according to Midori Paxton, head of ecosystems and biodiversity with the United Nations Development Programme.

"Of course, consumers have enormous power to shape the market," Paxton said in a panel discussion during Campaign Connect yesterday afternoon. "But it is really marketing that steers the direction of consumption. So marketing is a power that can bring about massive behavioural change." 

Paxton referred to researcher Erica Chenoweth's work showing that it takes just 3.5% of the population in a given country demanding change to drive major political action. "This is a much lower percentage than I thought," Paxton said. "And advertising and marketing industries should be able to set off this level of change among consumers to bring about large-scale movements for the planet and people, and sustainable and profitable businesses as well.

"Imagine if the industry put its energy, talents and resources together to convert people to positively act for the planet, and make them demand products with little carbon footprint and no nature-destruction footprint. That can accelerate necessary transformation." 

Paxton was joined on the panel by two brand representatives, Deepak Subramanian, the vice president for Unilever's Homecare division in Southeast Asia and Australia and the global head of its fabric enhancers category, and Christian Wiegele, EVP and president at Dole.

Both Subramanian and Wiegele talked at length about how their companies are making sustainability not just a bolt-on, CSR exercise, but a central part of strategy. (If you're attending Campaign Connect you can watch the whole panel discussion on-demand here.)

Both also had advice for companies that fear being called out for greenwashing. Their advice boils down to a sensible idea that's apparently too much for some companies to accept: Don't greenwash.

"We started the journey of sustainability a long time ago," Wiegele said. "We've embedded it in our core strategy last year. And I think there are probably three factors. The first one is having a clear line of sight. Where do you want to get to? The second one, be very authentic about your current baseline. And the third is, don't take any shortcuts."

On the third point, Wiegele derided companies that make commitments to cutting their carbon footprint but then take the easiest route toward meeting that obligation. 

"It's very easy to say 'I'm going to be carbon neutral five years from now', if the only thing which I'm going to do is buy carbon credits," he said. "That's the easy way out. Consumers will understand that, investors will understand that, and government organisations will understand that."

Instead, companies must be truthful and challenge themselves. "The hard way is really reducing your carbon footprint," he concluded. 

Echoing this sentiment, Subramanian urged companies to commit to sustainability on an all-in basis.

"You can't go in halfway," he said, before sharing three principles he urged companies to emulate. 

"Number one is, we have to go in as brands and pick the aspects of sustainability that are core to our positioning," he said. "Marketers always talk about the benefit ladder: functional benefit, emotional benefit, societal benefit. These three need to be lined up, and you've got to be really sharp around the role that the product plays. It must be tightly linked with the societal benefit that you provide. And once you get that lock very, very tight at the crafting stage, then you can be very authentic in the way you talk about sustainability. And nobody will doubt it because there's a clear line of sight between the role that the product plays and the idea that the brand is trying to drive." 

The second principle is action rather than talk. Here Subramanian made reference to Unliever brands Lifebuoy and Dove, both of which have long-established purposes that allow them to be authentic about their commitment to issues.  

"And the third bit is about knowing your impact, your full impact, and using science-based measurement to understand the carbon footprint," he said. For example, Subramanian said he knows how much of his division's carbon footprint is due to the chemicals it uses, versus how much of the footprint occurs in consumers' use of the products. 

"And therefore we need to then take the relevant actions, be it in our chemical footprint or in our plastic footprint, or in the way we inspire consumers to use our products," he said. "If we do these three things, we can have a multi-year journey, but do it in an authentic way, and nobody will complain that they are being greenwashed." 

The panel also included Christopher Nelius, co-founder of The Lion’s Share, an initiative that seeks to get marketers to pay into a fund when they use animals in their marketing. See our previous coverage of that effort here.

Campaign Asia

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