When Tory leader David Cameron was just coming out of nappies, I was having a pre-pubescent crush on David Attenborough. I was enraptured by his series, The World About Us, and his mellifluous tones, as he took us on a tour of the seas and jungles of the world. I would blub when they showed mankind’s cruelty and destruction, as trees were felled, land cleared and animals left homeless. How could people do this? Why weren’t people up in arms? Why wasn’t someone doing something to stop all this? It was only later that I understood the complexities of north/south politics, about poverty and corruption – and sadly, about mankind’s willingness to stick heads in sand and fingers in ears when faced with issues too big for this week’s in-tray.
On the surface, I learned to do the same, distracted as I was by university, money and the opposite sex. Still, I kept up my membership of green organisations, occasionally toying with the idea of becoming communications director for Greenpeace, and wondered how business, humanity and the environment could be reconciled.
But then, unbelievably, Mrs Thatcher made a speech to the Royal Society in 1988 saying the environment was important and that business should take it seriously. Suddenly, everyone scrabbled to say something (anything) about their green credentials.
The initial frenzy matured into more substantial policies, product development and corporate strategy. There is nothing like the risk of big fines and a muddied reputation to make business take notice.
The new policies also offered support to many senior executives who cared for babies, animals and recycling at the weekend but found it difficult to prioritise the environment at work, when they were judged by short-term financial targets. Besides, we all know that while consumers say they care, when it comes to real life only a minority are able or prepared to go out of their way to do their bit.
Today, we have former US vice-president Al Gore giving us the inconvenient truth in technicolour (although it is tempting to ask: “Why didn’t you say all that when you had a chance in power?”), and we have Cameron riding his bike, sticking wind turbines on his roof and talking about the general wellbeing index with a straight face.
But these are all key contributors and high-profile examples that the general public need as signals to act.
So, are we at last on the way to salvation, and can I now throw away a spoof retail ad sent to me by an old client (“Hurry! Rainforests! Last Few Years!”)? We all know the answer to those questions: a) it’s too little and in mortal danger of being too late and b) no, and it’s not funny anymore.
I was asked to join a committee a few years ago, set up by a green think tank, which wanted to explore how marketing could be more sustainable.
It was easy to question the topic and protest at the limits of what marketing can do in corporate political reality, but the big question remains. Shouldn’t we all be doing what we can in all our roles. And can’t we find a way to move things forward faster without making marketing look like the naive beardy of the business world? The answer is yes. There’s plenty of evidence about the risks for companies of not doing enough, and plenty of opportunities to read ahead on political and consumer behaviour (as opposed to today’s sometimes ambivalent consumer evidence).
The truth is that the end game of governments and the end benefit for businesses is (or should be) to enhance the quality of life for citizens and consumers, because that’s ultimately what people want.
We know that economic growth makes a poor proxy for perceptions of quality of life and happiness, so it’s high time for some broader and more inventive thinking about how we can achieve these things through more sustainable products, services and experiences. And that’s clearly a key role for marketing.
Britain is also one of the most inventive and creative economies in the world, and we should be aspiring to a leadership role in showing how a civilised society can live and thrive with sustainable development as an organising principle. And yes, with quality of life and wellbeing perceptions rather than straight financials/GDP as the holy measure.
So thanks, David Cameron, for making that a less weird proposition.
We’ve all got to do our bit, and now’s definitely the time to exploit the growing consensus. In the words of a recent report on encouraging sustainable consumption, “I will if you will”.
Rita Clifton is chair of Interbrand