Sustainability Communications: Getting them right

Mike Longhurst

Mike Longhurst is Senior Vice President at McCann-Erickson EMEA, responsible for Business Development and Corporate Affairs. He is a member of the Executive Board of the European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA) and has personal responsibilities for sustainability issues. In this role, Mike was a co-author of the Advertising Sector Report to the World Summit in 2002. He is a member of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Advertising Forum, representing the European communication agencies and has spoken at over fifty events around the world. In 2003 he also led development of an Ethical Code for advertising agencies which can be found at

Over many years there have actually been a vast number of campaigns on sustainability issues, pointing to more sustainable behaviours and lifestyles, but these have tended to be fragmented and short in duration. Organisations have failed to work together to ensure that basic requirements of any effective strategy are met and that is to be visible enough and engaging enough to make a difference. There is unfortunately too much village mentality for a lot of this advertising. Even the EC has flatly refused to cooperate with the UN environmental programme (UNEP) in putting their ideas together, because they wanted their own.

There has been a tendency to accuse, exhort or often just confuse, rather than engage, inform and persuade. Targeting of advertising has been sloppy and imprecise and failed to recognise very different levels of awareness and engagement by consumer segments in the issues being promoted. Thus advertising on these issues has often done what manufactures would almost never do and that is to try to talk to everyone at once with one voice. In short they have tended to please the already motivated and leave the uninformed cold. It is easy to sit around in a meeting and come up with what you want to say to people. It is much more difficult to look at it from the consumer’s perspective, what interests them, what it means to them.

People want the government to deal with these issues – “What the hell do we elect these guys for if they can't sort out things like that? Why are they bleating to us about it? Just let us to go on and lead our lives, will you?! If someone has allowed this product to be on this shelf, it can’t be wrong for me to buy and consume it, can it?” That is just simple consumer logic; “If it was wrong, it wouldn't be there, right?” We must work within that framework. And to companies and manufacturers, they might say - “Don’t use me as the person who decides what you should be making!” We call the majority of the consumers “hedonistic idealists.” They want to consume in the same way, but they also want the problem to get sorted. Just appealing to consumers is not enough, you have to offer them solutions. This creates opportunities for brands.

The positive change that I see comes from the factor that sustainability insiders most fear; the arrival on the scene of big brands with their advertising agencies. Sustainability issues are starting to become both a threat and an opportunity for brands and this is naturally pulling them into communication on these themes. I have to say in general they seem to be doing it quite well, but we are right to remain vigilant against “greenwash.” Environmental communications codes are in place in many countries from International Chamber of Commerce down to local self-regulation organisations like those in UK, France and others. We need to continue to challenge any exaggerated or unworthy claims to protect these issues as ones that have the potential to help consumers differentiate between brands.

Although some people are afraid of greenwash and the issue getting hijacked by the brands, I think we need to welcome a higher profile and help brands with sustainability messages, which is a strategy we decided to apply as far back as 1999 with the UN Environment Programme. UNEP called the advertising community in, because they already have a level of credibility among consumers and they can persuade the consumers a hell of a lot easier than anybody else can. So when Virgin with its millions of customers decides that it is worth their while to promote issues of reducing carbon emissions, that has to be a significant message, doesn't it? Do you know how many years we have been to the International Union of Public Transport and how many years we have been pleading with public transport authorities to do this sort of thing?! And how few of them are doing it, and now an entrepreneur like Virgin goes out and does it. And let’s make sure all the safeguards are there to make sure this is not greenwash! The advertising community in most major countries has legislation in place to stop greenwashing. The international chamber of commerce has too. This type of self-regulation solves problems much faster than any law would have done. Retailers all over the world have taken to these issues because it doesn't cost them any money, just choosing different producers – and this can be a positive point of differentiation for them.

Mike Longhurst, “Advertising and sustainability: a new paradigm”:

  • luminous/longhurst_sustainability_communications.txt
  • Last modified: 2010-02-06 04:32
  • by alkan