‘Images are worth 1000 words:’ sustainability advertising

Words by Clarissa Bell

Typically, advertising is a highly controversial topic, regardless of the topic or region. However, it has become even more contentious with the rise in sustainability becoming a now well-used call to action in advertising strategies.  

We all know that advertising is everywhere, especially in the internet era we’re inhabiting today with social media, billboards, even our day-to-day practices are becoming more commercialised than ever. The pandemic brought mass awareness of our impacts on the environment, and even before this, we’ve become more aware of our impacts on the world around us. Environmentalism and sustainability in advertising has turned into common practice nowadays, with many companies seeming to jump ship at the opportunity to include eco-friendly buzzwords into their plans and marketing strategies. Poetry Foundation has made a collection dedicated to the natural world, McDonalds HQ in Chicago now has a green roof, and even BP are releasing statements on the importance of greening companies. 

Of course, we love that companies seem to be focusing on their carbon footprints! However, as consumers, we’ve got to be aware of what narratives are being presented and what they are really trying to say to us (apart from “please buy our product”).  

Sustainability and eco-friendly messages in marketing aren’t all simply to divert our attention or greenwash their brands. It’s been shown that more frequent environmentally-centred marketing strategies are becoming more important for consumers and how it defines the personalities of brands. Certain signs of awareness about environmentalism in brands often yields a strong positive reaction, not only for people to be inclined to buy more sustainable products, but also to adopt more sustainable practices themselves. Deloitte’s 2021 survey found that 61% of consumers who participated in the survey are buying less single-use plastic, and a further 45% invested in more locally produced goods in an individual effort to reduce their carbon footprint. It’s not just the purely environmental side either – there are more people opting for brands promoting their ethics in their sustainability efforts too. We’re intuitively more likely to think of companies in a positive manner when they include ideas of sustainability we’re comforted by – the smiles from locally bought produce, the adorable animals playing in the fresh outdoors, and being told that we’re empowered to make sustainable choices by buying more ethically made products.

As much as it’s a definite step forward seeing these companies advertise more sustainable practices, there are always some things to be aware of. The major criticism of environmentally focused marketing is greenwashing, especially when advertising a product that is not traditionally associated with eco-friendliness. Furthermore, it is getting increasingly difficult to identify greenwashing and the impact it has on consumer patterns. Greenwashing is… increasingly tricky to identify in most adverts, to say the least. There’s a set amount of time to present a product, there’s many ideas that we link to sustainability more than others, and environmentalism is becoming a very big selling point for many demographics that companies feel the need to appeal to. 

There are companies that advocate for how to avoid greenwashing and call attention to the need to take responsibility for making accurate green claims. For instance, Google’s recent article on advertising without greenwashing points out that a staggering 40% of advertising with an environmental component is misleading.

On the other side of this rhetoric, however, are advertising information outlets giving advice on how to market sustainability as a trend and how presenting companies as ‘authentic’ through sustainability is to become a priority. Even if the message is hidden or subdued in some way, or not directly implied in any advertising component, it’s ‘hidden marketing’ potential is enough for many companies to lean into for the sake of targeting their products to younger, more environmentally conscious generations. It can in some cases be a purposeful financial gain for some companies without any sustainability reports or receipts to back their newfound environmental ethics. However, it’s still inadvertently promoting sustainability – so where is the line on sustainable advertising here?

Our recent generations have become some of the most environmentally aware than ever, and with streamlined and media reported events like COP26 and worldwide sustainability summits happening before our eyes, our consumer habits have shifted to reflect this. Likewise, advertising and company market ethics have shifted with it. Whether sustainability marketing will become a long-term effort by companies to promote more sustainable everyday behaviours is still in question, but contemporary research is pointing to a bigger complexity facing us.

With the long-awaited rise in marketing sustainability to mirror our environmental and ethical concerns, we need to be aware of what, who and why we’re being sold now more than ever.  

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