How brands and agencies should talk about sustainability

By Brandon Doerrer

A recent industry focus on sustainability efforts suggests that brands and agencies are waking up to their imperative role in reducing carbon emissions — and doing so transparently. But during a time when the planet needs clear, effective measures to survive, sustainability communications are stuck in greenhushing limbo, keeping work under wraps to avoid greenwashing accusations and general scrutiny.

Reporting on ESG can be intimidating, as consumer backlash is real. But leading sustainability figures in the ad industry say it's essential in order to push the sector toward developing standardized measurement frameworks. 

There’s no way for companies to guarantee that their work will be well-received by consumers, but there are a few steps they can take to feel more confident about crafting and sharing sustainable practices responsibly and accurately.

Work with third-party experts

Making green work that’s easy to talk about starts at inception. Working with third-party climate experts is one of the best ways to ensure that clean projects are up to snuff, said John Gentry, CEO of ad tech platform OpenX.

“There are global standards in this area,” he said. “We didn’t understand any of that.”

OpenX, a programmatic supply-side platform, was independently certified as carbon neutral last May by consulting firm Natural Capital Partners, which guided the company through a series of steps to measure and verify progress. OpenX also works with Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance as its ongoing regulatory assurance partner. And in June, it partnered with Scope3 to measure the carbon impact of digital ad campaigns that run through its exchange.

“We had to take our measurements and have them verified by a third-party group,” Gentry said.

Other brands, such as Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry’s and Walmart, have worked with consultants like Pure Strategies, which help companies set science-based goals and plans to achieve them.

Scientists have known how to reduce carbon emissions for years, but dedicated sustainability frameworks for the ad industry have yet to be set. In the meantime, consultants can serve as guides to apply global sustainability practices to the ad business, Gentry said.

“You’ve got to anchor in the standards that have existed in the space for decades,” he said, adding that the more companies publicize their work, the easier it will be to reach a carbon measurement consensus.

DE&I teams can also give ESG frameworks an added layer of credibility. Good sustainability practices include elements of environmental justice that address the disproportionate effects climate change has on marginalized communities, said Ruben Schreurs, chief product officer at media consultancy Ebiquity.

“It’s important to make sure that you are not tone deaf or omit key messaging from your purpose, statements or your strategy documentation, but that you have pillars to build on,” he said. “That includes the racial injustice when it comes to sustainability.”

Communicate with your budget

The public will have a harder time levying greenwashing accusations at companies that back up their clean claims with monetary investments, said Duncan Meisel, executive director at industry activist group Clean Creatives.

“We have the saying ‘money talks,’ and I think that’s the best way to communicate your priorities — with your budget,” he said. “Your PR engagement should flow from the actual investments you’re making. If that’s happening, I think PR can be a source for adding real integrity and aligning the public around the action that we need to take.”

Ebiquity’s Schreurs agreed that consumers will be more receptive to sustainability comms that focus on results instead of hyped-up announcements and far-flung goals.

“Brands need to be careful with overly bold claims about things they may end up doing in the future,” he said. “They need to start actually doing the work — we’re in a climate crisis. When it comes to sustainability, this isn’t one of your branding or marketing levers.”

He added that PR teams can use their expertise to help companies time the release of their reports, but warned that they shouldn’t gate keep sustainability initiatives that are ready for the public eye just to avoid potential criticism.

Be wary of polluting clients

Agencies should be mindful of which companies they work with, said Clean Creative’s Meisel. Working with a fossil fuel company, for instance, opens an agency up to criticism when reporting an otherwise well-crafted sustainability initiative.

Ad associations have yet to decide whether fossil fuel clients and their agencies should be permitted into sustainability working groups and initiatives, another area where the industry lacks consensus on how to tackle the issue.

Groups like Clean Creatives are critical of brands and agencies that attempt to craft a positive sustainability narrative while continuing to work for fossil fuel companies. The group lambasted members of Ad Net Zero, the industry’s coalition for reducing its carbon footprint, for working with fossil fuel clients in a social media stunt on the day of its U.S. launch.

While consumers and advocacy groups push companies to improve their sustainability efforts, Ebiquity’s Schreurs warned that being too critical of progress could discourage any work from being done. Still, brands need to continue to do the work, regardless of public pushback.

Why reporting is critical

As OpenX’s Gentry said, the ad industry takes one step closer to creating standardized measurement frameworks with each company that publicizes its own work. As more companies report their progress, it creates a path for others to follow, which makes the process much less intimidating.

Organizations will have to get comfortable reporting their sustainability efforts, anyways. The Corporate Reporting Sustainability Directive — a European Union law that requires large companies to report their sustainability work to investors, consumers and other stakeholders — kicks into effect starting in the 2024 fiscal year for reports published in 2025. It’s estimated to affect 50,000 companies that each have more than 250 employees and €40 million in revenue. Companies based outside of the EU that report revenue of over €150 million in the region fall under the law’s purview.

The Security and Exchange Commission proposed a similar law for the U.S. in March 2022. Despite pushback from companies and investors, the law is expected to move forward this year.

At the end of January, the Federal Trade Commission extended the public comment period on the Green Guides, a set of instructions for marketers to avoid making deceptive environmental marketing claims.

This story first appeared on Campaign US.