Advertising Helped Destroy the Environment. Can It Help Save It?

Our job now is to create intrinsic value, and profit, while using fewer resources

Advertising is a powerful force, more powerful than we like to admit. 

It was advertising that created the unquenchable demand required to fuel the Industrial Revolution. For capitalism to survive, and manufacturing to thrive, people had to be trained to desire things they didn't need.

In 1955, retail analyst Victor Lebow explained: "Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing pace. It requires that we convert buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption."

The advertising-fueled capitalist machine isn't all bad. It transformed the world, lifting millions out of poverty, creating wealth, a middle class, cities, leisure time, international collaboration that lessened wars, funding for healthcare and scientific discoveries, and many other benefits.

But creating unlimited demand in a world of limited resources is a problem. A problem that now threatens our very existence.

As an industry, we lie to ourselves, underestimating advertising's role in all of this. In a November 2020 report, the New Weather Institute argued that the advertising industry has largely escaped accountability.

"Enough sound empirical evidence exists to support the conclusion that the advertising industry indirectly contributes to climate and ecological degradation through its encouragement of materialistic values and goals, the consumption-driving work and spend cycle," wrote Tim Kasser, an emeritus professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, who co-authored the report.

As Sut Jhally describes in the documentary Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse, in 50 years, we used more resources than humans did in the previous 3,000. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has been steadily warming, with the 10 hottest years all occurring since 2005, 2020 being the hottest. The endless demand that advertising creates is pushing our ecosystem beyond what it can handle.

The first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem.

I joined advertising because I loved the creative process, creative people, and seeing the magic they created. I now struggle with the contradiction of caring about the planet, while knowing that the more successful my next campaign, the more pollution and landfill I will have added to.

But can we use advertising to solve the problem advertising created? Companies and the capitalist model need profits, so if advertising is to help, it needs to deliver greater profits with fewer resources.

Therefore, advertising must create intrinsic value—that people will pay for—beyond the resources required.

Let's look at the apparel industry, the world's second-largest polluter, as an example. Fast fashion is proof of the power of advertising to destroy the world; people buy so much cheap, disposable clothing that 50 percent of clothes are worn three times and then thrown away. Yet Levi's is taking a stand, with a raft of changes to make its products more sustainable, using less water, more recycled materials and launching community programs. Ultimately, they want you to buy less, by buying better and wearing for longer.

Advertising can help us think more about our choices, encouraging buying better quality and lesser quantities, and creating a necessary value shift. Unilever is also creating a value shift. The company set out to double the size of its business and at the same time halve its environmental impact. It took a range of measures, including moving people to more concentrated versions of many of its products to reduce the impact of energy, packaging and transport. To get someone to pay the same amount for a bottle half the size requires compelling them to look at value differently. That’s the power of advertising that we must unlock—increasing intrinsic value, and profit, while using fewer resources. 

Clorox has created refill cartridges that cut plastic by 75 percent, but it requires a consumer behavior change where they’re doing more work for the same result.

How can we create behavior at this scale? Advertising.

It took advertising to create materialism and mass consumerism, and it'll take advertising to move us beyond them while keeping the economy moving. Advertising can make society aware of the issue and place greater value on sustainable products. NYU Stern's Center for Sustainable Business found that products marked "sustainable" grew 5.6 times faster than those that weren't.

Whether promoting owning less and moving to the sharing economy, moving to electric cars, eating less meat, holidaying closer to home, focusing on experiences over products, buying better and using for longer, or making better environmental choices, advertising can lead the way because it is advertising that shapes our desires and our values. We don't like to admit it, but it does.

As Keith Weed, former CMO of Unilever points out, sustainability should report to marketing, because it's marketing that creates demand and the company's future income.

Advertising alone can't stop environmental catastrophe, but having helped create the problem, it needs to be part of the solution.

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