Ignore your sustainability policy at your peril

Slapping a recycling logo on your product is no longer sufficient sustainable marketing practice, writes Tania Crosbie. Here she shares her top five tips for marketers take their sustainability communications to the next level.

It’s crunch time for marketers. No longer can marketing teams and their agencies get away with disregarding their organisational sustainability policies. Why do I think that? Because we’ve had a few clangers lately.

Remember the Telstra iPhone 6 ad, where the man opens the packaging and throws it away so that a crab becomes stuck in it? Not a great example of environmental responsibility – and also a reinforcement of overt consumerism.

And just this morning HP released the ‘lost iguana’ ad that shows excessive glossy colour printing, light pollution and the captivity of an illegal animal.

Only the other week Amex sent remote control Ferraris all over Australia in the hope that companies would sign up for a card. And when they did, Amex would send the remote control so that the new customers could operate the Ferrari.

ferrari

But what happened to all those cars (without remotes) of the people who didn’t sign up? I bet they all landed in the bin. Clearly Amex wasn’t thinking about the materials and the batteries wasted, the embodied energy in their gimmick or their contribution to landfill. It’s enough to make a sustainability manager cry.

So what is going on here?

There are a number of things but one stands out: sustainability is still only a secondary add-on to most company strategies or values. Many teams still don’t define themselves as being part of a sustainable company. So when uninformed marketers and agencies come up with their latest product marketing idea, sustainability is not given a thought.

Telstra has a whole section on its website, plus an annual sustainability policy that states that it “promotes environmentally friendly behaviours in the workplace”. Obviously something is not sinking in or else that iPhone 6 ad would never have made it past pitch stage.

American Express also has a great section on its website about environmental responsibilities, which mentions “engaging employees in the company’s environmental responsibility programs is also a priority”. Once again, the Australian direct marketing arm of Amex must have missed that directive or else simply doesn’t understand that waste, even to secure sales, is still waste. As more and more customers and stakeholders call companies on their poor behaviour, direct marketing efforts like this can actually lose customers for life.

I am frequently asked by marketers: “What is the main thing I need to do to make our marketing ‘green’?” They have a tick-box mentality and treat sustainability like OH&S. If they have a recycling symbol on the packaging, then that makes them green. If they print on FSC-certified paper, then they are an environmentally friendly organisation. That is simply not enough any more.

So here is what I say to marketers who really want to understand how to integrate sustainability into their marketing messaging:

  1. Walk the talk: sustainability is a philosophical approach to business. Unless everyone in your organisation is thinking sustainably and is approaching it from the same dimension, then don’t claim to be a leader in sustainability,
  2. ensure it passes the test: have a set of ‘does it pass the sustainability test’ questions. Does it consider energy, water and waste, animals, resources and community? Include these guidelines in your brief to the agency,
  3. refer to your policies: check your sustainability policy and attempt to understand what those claims mean for marketing, your team and your agencies,
  4. up-skill: invest in training to ensure you, your staff and your agency are skilled in understanding, and delivering, the sustainability message, and
  5. don’t play the ostrich: don’t think your customers won’t notice. Trust me, they will. And don’t think your stakeholders and investors won’t notice. Trust me, they will too.

No one likes negative publicity and it is easy to avoid by steering clear of advertising that contradicts your sustainability policies. But this is easier said than done. Complying with sustainability policies is time consuming and often ‘nitpicky’ – but the results will be worth it.  By looking through the sustainability filter before an ad is produced, many companies can avoid making blunders. I don’t think Telstra and HP will make the same mistakes in the future, as the public outcry has been loud and negative.

I am not so hopeful that the Amex business direct marketing campaign will not be repeated, but I am ever the optimist. I’m sure there are businesses all over Australia that have a huge Ferrari sitting in their waiting rooms, just waiting for that remote control and thanking their lucky stars that their marketing teams understand their sustainability policies.

 

Tania Crosbie is a CPM and fellow of the Australian Marketing Institute and runs a sustainability marketing, communications, engagement, training and research firm. Tania is employed as a ‘sustainability whisperer’ and educates marketers and agencies on the dos and don’ts of sustainability in marketing and advertising.