Sustainability in marketing – are we greenwashing ourselves?

by Daniel Hofmeier

It’s 2022, and climate change is no longer just a theoretical quantity in the minds of some, but a harsh reality for many. Floods, heat waves, fires – the list could go on forever. We have a problem, that much is certain. And according to the IPCC report, we have long since left the path towards 1.5 degrees. 

Sustainability is therefore the order of the day. Only consume as much as grows back, or in other words: do no harm. What sounds so simple is, of course, anything but. For us as individuals, but even more so for companies. How to withstand the pressure of growth, satisfy one’s own customers and then also become more sustainable? An almost impossible task. But one we have to face, as companies are the main drivers of CO² emissions worldwide. 

It is a theme in Cannes

So it is only logical that sustainability is a big theme at the Croisette. If you look at the festival themes of this year’s Cannes Lions, sustainability is even at the top of the list. This was the conclusion of this year’s LIONS State of Creativity Survey:

“855 of respondents said that creativity centred around sustainability is either critical or very important to business today. Out of the six themes listed, sustainability was identified as the most important topic on the creative agenda today.”

It pays off to be green: So how can brands communicate sustainability in a more authentic and impactful way? That’s the question the festival is asking delegates gathering in Cannes in 2022. An interesting question. As creatives who work either on the corporate side in marketing or in agencies and productions as service providers, we are in an interesting position. We are the communicative interface between companies that need to become more sustainable and the customers for whom sustainability seems to be more and more important. 

So it is our job to explain to companies (or to our own) that it makes sense to act sustainably. That would be our positive effect internally. Through customer communication, we have the opportunity to show why it makes sense to prefer sustainable products. That would be our positive effect externally. Few people have a job that combines these two opportunities. So we can make a difference!

Sustainability as a task

Quite a few people at Cannes this year see it that way. In the lecture “It’s Not Climate Change, It’s the Everything Change”, Txai Surui, an indigenous climate activist who already presented her concerns to the UN, was allowed to make a burning plea about how important it is to finally do something concrete.

And in the presentation “By 2030 Every Ad Will Be a Green Ad”, it was solemnly announced that around 18 well-known companies, including Google, Sky, Meta, dentsu and a few more want to produce climate-free ads from 2030.

So something is happening in Cannes. Advertisers and brands seem to realise. Sustainability, even climate catastrophe, has a voice. We have a job dear fellow creatives, agencies and marketers. Or? OR?

The task is clear. So why is nothing happening?

Now you could say, hey great, we get it! We are aware of our responsibility. Let’s go, let’s get to work. We here in Cannes are, after all, the spearhead of marketing. All the big brands are here. The key people in leadership positions from Coca Cola, Unilever, Adidas, NIKE, IKEA, Activision Blizzard, Amazon, Lego, IBM, Microsoft, UPS, Vice, Samsung, Google, McDonalds, Spotify, Nestle, Disney, Pepsi, Meta, TikTok, Paypal, Pinterest, Dove, Red Bull, Mastercard, Twitter, LinkedIn, Netflix, Hyundai and many more* are joining hands in silent agreement on sustainability. Why shouldn’t this work?

Nice thought, but it’s not happening here. The topic of sustainability is not relevant. You can feel that here in every lecture and wherever you go, even between the lines. Moritz Schreiner has already described this feeling excellently in his blog post. And it’s not just a feeling, it can also be confirmed if you look at the figures…

The reality check

Sustainability is the top 1 topic in Cannes, according to 855 people from the LIONS State of Creativity Survey. If this is the case, how does this year’s festival programme fit into the picture? 

Below is a list of the programme items by category**:

Creative Effectiveness – 65

Data, Tech & Innovation – 54

Diversity Equity & Inclusion – 36

All about the Work – 27

Business Transformation – 26

Talent – 28

Members-Only – 18

A Call to Action – 13

Sustainability – 12

Out of 279 programme items, only 12 events are dedicated to the topic of sustainability. That’s just under 4 % of the entire 2022 programme. How does that fit together?

Now you might say, well, it’s just the programme. Cannes Lions is and remains an event where prizes are awarded. Prizes for outstanding productions. Productions that do justice to the aforementioned importance of our position in the company and with the customers.

Well, what can I say. Let’s look at the numbers here as well. There are 28 awards in different categories. Only one of them deals with the topic of sustainability.

Don’t get me wrong, I am already aware that not all categories can be called “the most sustainable production”. But how would it be if at least all the productions submitted had to be sustainable in order to be able to win an award at all? That would have a steering effect, it would correspond to the importance of a top theme in Cannes.

And yes, for the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned that inviting 15,000 delegates from over 90 countries to beautiful Cannes every year for one week, most of whom – including our delegation from THE LÄND – travel by plane, is perhaps not exactly the definition of sustainability. Be that as it may.

The greenwashing thing

What really drives me crazy in my trip to Cannes, and what makes it even worse, is that Cannes Lions is a really beautiful event. Creatives meet, inspire each other, celebrate successes and leave with new ideas. You rarely feel that kind of empowerment. People want to move things, change things.

But that doesn’t seem to prevail when it comes to sustainability. Even in the aforementioned talk “It’s Not Climate Change, It’s the Everything Change”, after Txai Surui’s plea, there is a switch to the topic of Web 3.0, NFTs and cryptocurrencies without further mention of her speech. They are the saviours of sustainability. Clever, then there’s great money to be made in sustainability. End of train of thought. That’s as far as it goes. Nobody here could, but they don’t want to. People would rather believe their own greenwashing.

My quasi conclusion

I think we could do with a little humility. When we get together in Cannes and celebrate our successes, we should paint a more realistic picture. Maybe that’s my grouchy view from the German South-West on the big, international approach to marketing. But in the end, it doesn’t help us. It’s not enough to continue playing buzzword bingo, to define goals in the far distance, to bask in our own apparent sustainability successes. 

What counts is action, and the above-mentioned companies in particular can no longer hide from this task. Greenwashing is out. Marketing must become more honest. Storytelling must become more honest, only then will people believe you. And that, paradoxically, is precisely the goal that everyone wants to achieve. We in our positions have it in our hands. I’m just afraid that the very companies that have the most to contribute don’t want to play in this game.

And so it is still true: We could make a difference, but we didn’t…

*the list is unnecessarily long. I am sorry about that, dear reader. But it shows very well how unbelievably unreal it all is.

** The numbers change all the time, because the programme is changed every day. But the basic message remains the same.