To advertise with a conscience we need products with a conscience. From the industrial revolution and the invention of the steam engine, man’s appetite to consume has grown with such ferociousness that we’ll soon need to start duplicating our planet if we are to carry on at this relentless pace.
But there is hope, and that hope starts with the consumer and the products he or she chooses to buy. Sustainability has never been about making token handouts to worthy causes. It’s about correcting the social and environmental imbalances brought about by products and consumers over the last couple of centuries. It’s about ‘single planet living’ and offering consumers an ethically correct choice. It’s about leaving our environment in a better state than we found it and, at the same time, sustaining realistic business growth.
We shouldn’t be waiting for consumers to demand this choice – we should be offering it as a matter of principle. And we need to do it organically, starting with a focus on the product. Sustainability that truly works is all about knowing your product’s story and the community it finds itself in. We should be interrogating the product, not just to reveal its USP (if it still has one in today’s parity marketplace), but to find out how, where, who and what was used to make it, transport it, market it and sell it. We need to look at the community that buys it and we need to link up with NGOs that see sustainability as an investment and not simply a donation.
Building it up together
These NGOs, together with the sustainable product, can build lasting relationships that not only benefit a planet in dire need of help, but also address social problems within the communities. But what does the product stand to gain? It can claim the high ground in consumers’ hearts and minds and, as a result, grow market share against products that don’t care. Some will say that there are bigger problems facing the world today, especially in emerging markets where the last thing on a consumer’s mind is whether a product was ethically produced.
But it is in these societies, where exploitation of the environment and labour is at its worst, and where housing, health, education and job creation are top of the agenda, that brands should start building lasting relationships that benefit the people and the bottom line.
While this partnership with the consumer is of critical importance, our government needs to start implementing laws. These laws must benefit brands and corporations that comply, and hit those that don’t with severe tax implications as well as strict time limits to implement change. Overseas retailers like BandQ and Target started this process more than five years ago and are now reaping the benefits. Unilever has stated that ‘this is the only way forward’ and the UK’s 100 biggest firms are now lobbying the government for tough legislation to ensure that products adhere to ethically correct standards.
So where are we in sunny South Africa? Not far enough by a long shot. We need to start by being honest – so honest it hurts. We need to do more as individuals, as consumers and as citizens. We need to demand the choice to buy products that care. We need to become conscious of what we buy and how we buy. And we need to put pressure on brands to join us on a road to recovery. If we don’t, it will very soon be too late. As marketers we have the influence to slowly start turning this tide. We’re in a position to help our clients realise that sustainability is not just a feel-good ship they can pour money into, but an innovative marketing solution that delivers results – not only for the shareholders but also for this planet we call home.
By Deon Robbertze, Zoom Advertising