Is advertising ready for a more sustainable era of consumption?

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Opinion: Advertising has traditionally encouraged us to act as individuals, but climate change forces us to think collectively

By Claire Hyland and Olivia FreemanTU Dublin

The dictionary definition of consumption refers to ‘the purchase and use of goods by the public’ yet its Latin origin”consumer“expands to include the meaning ‘to destroy or expend by use’. Therein lies the paradox of consumerism. In our modern purchases and uses of goods for our personal gain, we have inflicted pain on our planet and each other, putting life on Earth at risk.

Consumption, capitalism and carbon

The idea of ​​citizens as consumers became common in America in the 1920s, but it was the 1950s that saw the explosion of mass consumption of household goods across the industrialized world. At the heart was a representation of ‘The good life’, a model of progress rooted in the accumulation of products and a better quality of life that results. This accumulation of things underlies the heart of capitalism and the goal of perpetual economic growth.

In Western society today, we have consumer economies operating in consumer societies. “Personal success” is largely measured indirectly by the status assigned to things, while “national success” is directly equated with consumer purchasing power and spending. In the United States, the world’s largest economy by nominal GDP and net wealth, 68.5% of its nominal GDP this year came from household consumption.

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According to Our Changing Climate, can a for-profit company really adopt an eco-responsible and sustainable message?

Such high levels of consumption lead to high levels of harmful carbon emissions. A 2015 study points out that around two-thirds of global emissions are “directly and indirectly” linked to household consumption.

When is enough?

Current consumption patterns indicate that we would need three planets to provide the necessary natural resources if everyone consumed as Europeans consume. In terms of the actual amount of man-made matter – anthropogenic mass – the Earth is currently crossing its “sufficiency” threshold with anthropogenic mass now exceeding all of the world’s living biomass.

At the societal level, advanced economies have already outgrown the positive benefits of having more stuff. Overall life satisfaction is declining in many European countries, despite growing wealth, with further advances in overall national well-being having less to do with the wealth of societies, but with the distribution of wealth.

How advertising drives consumption and carbon

CO2 per capita versus ad spend per capita. Image: The Great Reset 2020

In 2020, The Purpose Disruptors, a network of ad insiders working to fight climate change, found a correlation of 0.89 CO2 emissions per capita to ad spend per capita. Basically, the higher the ad spend, the higher the CO2 emissions. Their 2021 report, Advertised Emissions, identified that successful adverts add a further 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every person in the UK.

Can advertising reduce its carbon load?

The advertising industry has the power to immediately reduce its carbon load. It can choose to cut both resources and media spend behind high-carbon companies and reallocate skills and personnel towards creating and promoting low-carbon consumer choices.

We can already see this change in motion. A recent survey by Campaign magazine showed that 23% of agencies in the UK refuse work from potential clients with poor sustainability credentials. The reduction in carbon emissions will likely also come from national industrial programs to achieve net zero emissions by 2030, but its greatest legacy will likely be its role in improving consumer culture.

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From the Advertising Association, panel discussion at Renew 2022 on the challenge of climate change for the advertising industry

As “creators of desire,” the advertising industry has the power to change culture, telling a different set of stories that focus more on meaning than happiness. The Purpose Disruptors’ Good Life 2030, unveiled at COP26, highlights the potential for a new narrative driving a new set of consumer behaviors focused on a greater sense of connectedness with ourselves, our communities and nature. This is good news for the consumer (citizen) who sees it as the advertising and creative industry’s responsibility to encourage more sustainable behaviors.

Who else needs rowing?

Marketers, the people who pay advertisers’ salaries, need to refocus their brands’ goals and communications into the space of universalism and benevolence and away from the human values ​​of power, security and success. Operationally, these clients (companies) must demonstrate a systematic change in overall governance, production processes and employee compensation. They need to be more responsible in their disclosure of the metrics and targets they use to measure their impact on the environment.

For their part, consumers are already modifying their purchasing preferences based on social responsibility, inclusivity or environmental impact. “Buying better” is part of the solution, but “buying less” is the real solution so that consumption can fit into planetary needs, while satisfying basic human needs. The super-affluent consumer needs to up their game in terms of improved sustainable literacy accelerating demand and participation in the circular economy, which may well see this generation as the last generation to flaunt their wealth.

The change needed to address this climate catastrophe also requires policy change that goes beyond economic growth.

At the political level, we need to look at the quality of social relations to develop harmonious and sustainable societies far from traditional economic theory. Alternative prosperity models and indices must focus less on the individual consumer and more on citizens, community and collective need.

This means less mapping of a nation’s powers through the prism of short-term measures around consumer purchasing power and spending choice, and more emphasis on long-term systematic change that enables mobility. social and equitable distribution of wealth. Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics provides a model for meeting the needs of all within the planet’s means, as does John Fullerton’s Regeneration Capitalism.

A solidarity approach for a more sustainable way of life

Advertising has traditionally encouraged us to act as individuals, while climate change forces us to think collectively. Advertising can bring about a fundamental cultural shift in outlook that has the power to impact everything from how we respond to biodiversity loss to systematic societal inequality. Such changes will lead to lower carbon in the short term and far greater social outcomes in the long term.

But the industry cannot do it alone. The change needed to address this climate catastrophe also requires policy change at the business and societal level that goes beyond a single focus on economic growth. Only then will we see a new era of consumption, one where consumption is out of necessity and where ‘status’ is rooted in having a positive impact on the planet and its people, without any act of “destruction” in sight.

Claire Hyland is a Business Sustainability Leadership student at TU Dublin and head of the Youth Lab at Thinkhouse. Dr Olivia Freeman is a senior lecturer at the School of Marketing at TU Dublin.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ


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