Sustainability has become a dealbreaker for all brands looking to build customer loyalty.
According to a 2021 YouGov study, an overwhelming 86% of British consumers now say it is important for brands or businesses to take action on sustainability.
And though much of the coverage around environmental impact can centre on areas such as production, manufacturing and logistics, there’s no doubt that the advertising industry is also coming under an increasing spotlight.
A report by the Advertising Association’s Climate Action Working Group in 2020 found that carbon emissions from UK agencies exceed 84,000 tonnes a year, a finding that sparked the launch of its Net Zero initiative, galvanising the industry to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.
This is coupled with the critical role of marketers in communicating wider brand messages on sustainability to consumers, with increasing competition in this space prompting a wave of greenwashing or even false claims – and a subsequent clampdown by the Competition and Markets Authority.
In short, sustainability is at the crux of nearly every move marketers currently make.
“Consumers are no longer fooled by vague environmental statements,” says Sonia Danner, senior marketer at Marketreach. “They want real commitment, authenticity, and proof of tangible results. And rightly so.
“At a time when the economic downturn means changes in spending behaviours and a greater propensity for switching brands, ignoring sustainability could cost businesses dearly.”
Environmental impact of marketing
But against this backdrop, how much attention are marketers paying to the carbon footprint of their media mix?
After all, there’s no doubt that each media channel – be it digital, out-of-home, TV or direct mail – carries with it an environmental footprint, making the right media mix an important step in crafting a brand or agency’s overall approach to sustainability.
“No decision about media selection is made on sustainability alone,” says Phil Ricketts, commercial director at Marketreach. “It’s also about effectiveness, targeting, efficiency, creativity, ROI and cost-per-result.”
On that front, mail more than holds its own. According to JICMAIL, mail drives a 95% engagement rate and triggers 31% of commercial actions from those who receive it. “But it is pleasing to see that sustainability – specifically the impact that media activity has on carbon emissions and natural ecosystems – is becoming a much more prominent and urgent part of the decision-making process,” he adds.
But while things like cost-per-engagement or ROI are relatively simple spreadsheet metrics, sustainability is a far, far more complex and nuanced factor. Where should a marketer begin?
Lack of industry standards
Currently, assessing impact can be clouded by a number of common myths and misconceptions. Partly that’s a lack of any universal tool for comparison, points out Richard Armstrong, partner at MSQ Sustain.
“While we have a common currency for measuring the carbon emissions for any activity or media channel [grams of carbon dioxide equivalent, or gCO₂e], we don’t have in place an industry-wide standard model for comparing apples with apples,” he says. “If we are all working with partial or different information, it’s easy to take a selective viewpoint – and it’s tempting to cherry-pick flattering stats to make the case for one vs the other.”
This can lead to confirmation bias, he adds, whereby selected information is used to ‘prove’ or support some “very ingrained, default assumptions in people’s minds”.
One of the most pervading of these assumptions is that ‘paper is bad, paperless is good’, with many marketers under the impression that digital media has little to no environmental impact compared to campaigns that use direct mail.
The reality though isn’t quite so straightforward.
The need for life cycle assessments
When Marketreach commissioned the first carbon life cycle assessment (LCA) for mail, which was published in September 2022 looking at its end-to-end carbon footprint from raw materials to recycling and landfill, it found that mail often compares favourably with digital alternatives. Carbon emissions from small paper formats, such as postcards or occasion cards, use less carbon than one hour of video streaming, according to data from ClimateCare. The most commonly used letter formats, meanwhile, create significantly less emissions than an online ad campaign, which can produce the equivalent of 5.4 tonnes of CO2e, according to data from the Good Loop tool.
None of which is to discount the environmental impact of direct mail. But by taking a closer look at the carbon impact at each stage of the life cycle marketers can more accurately identify hotspots and plan strategies to mitigate these impacts and make more informed choices. Plus, they can begin to see its circularity, a concept that spans the five pillars of regenerate, reinvent, reduce, reuse and recycle.
Paper products used within direct mail can help support sustainable forestry, for example, and make use of biodegradable inks and plastic alternatives, while 70% of fibres used to make paper in the UK are recycled – capable of being reused up to seven times. That’s why marketers need to build a more comprehensive picture of sustainability when it comes to creating the right balance of media channels.
The best way to do this, recommends Armstrong, is via an LCA.
“It doesn’t just measure the media or activity in isolation, it opens the aperture to take into consideration the entire lifecycle – from raw materials throughout the supply-chain, to time and energy and carbon spent developing the assets, right through to end-of-life and how circular or not that activity is,” he explains.
“It helps you understand where the hotspots are, what really matters, what can I change now – and because it’s quantifiable, you can really get a handle on making effective decisions for your business.”
Pioneers leading the way
Innovative brands can even take this one step further, amplifying the sustainable credentials of their chosen media. For example, when Paris ad agency BETC sought an impactful way to communicate its commitment to sustainability, it decided to turn its CSR report into a hotel for wild bees. Not only did each page replicate natural cavities for bees to nest in, but information was printed on waterproof mineral paper containing pumice stone, to guarantee durability and ensure a long-term home for the insect.
The Isle of Harris Distillery in Scotland took a similar approach in 2021, as it sought to elevate its premium gifting experience for customers while also lowering its carbon footprint. While the addition of embossing, full-colour print and metallic print all added to the customer experience, the use of fully recyclable materials and streamlined packaging formats helped the company simultaneously increase sales of gift sets (up by 121%) while reducing its environmental impact.
No decision on media selection is based on sustainability alone, of course. Marketers must pair this insight with effectiveness, targeting, efficiency, creativity, ROI and cost-per-result too. But environmental impact needs to be an increasingly important part of the equation.
“It’s time for marketers to get our houses in order, recognise the impact that the industry has on the planet and formulate robust strategies to help mitigate and reduce this impact,” says Danner. “It’s a journey for the marketing industry, but armed with the right education and tools, we can make better, more informed media choices that are good for the planet, consumers and businesses.”
For more on the role of direct mail within a sustainable media strategy click here.