What agencies can do to address the climate emergency

Howard Parry-Husbands, Pollinate
By Howard Parry-Husbands, Pollinate | 28 August 2019

Howard Parry-Husbands is CEO of Pollinate, a strategic research consultancy. He is also on the board of Planet Ark. AdNews sat down with Howard to establish what advertising agencies can do to help address the climate emergency and assist Australia in a transition to a sustainable, flourishing way of life. Here, in very simple terms, he outlines what is possible for every agency:

In the face of insufficient action, climate change has become a climate emergency. Perhaps the biggest reason for this crisis is our failure to adapt our communications.

Advertising requires a tension that a brand resolves to be positioned as the "hero" – which relieved consumer’s anxiety – thus creating behaviour change, brand loyalty and winning creative awards.

Climate change already causes widespread underlying anxiety, but most brands have failed to resolve any of society’s anxieties.

And as climate change becomes an emergency, we are witnessing uprisings, such as school strikes for climate change and Extinction Rebellion. People’s unresolved tensions, fears and anger are galvanising into action and conflict.

But it is time for a shift in the narrative. It is time to stop the catastrophising narratives that have dominated the climate change discussion for too long.

It is time for advertising to create a new narrative of hope to drive the transformation to a sustainable way of life.

Climate change is insidious and invisible: it is a wicked, intangible problem. Its effects will be felt, but they are hard to fathom in the here and now of metro Australia.

This despairing narrative without a ‘common enemy’ is a terrible recipe begging for a successful advertising strategy.

And the climate emergency is becoming a crisis. In terms of proxy measures such as species extinctions, rising CO2 levels, frequency and severity of extreme weather events, ecological and economic systems are suffering, threatening a functioning, flourishing society.

Which is why it is time to replace the politics of despair with the politics of hope; hope based on pragmatic, nature-based solutions such as wind and solar in place of coal and gas, wood and fibre instead of plastics and concrete and vast new forests across our cities and regions.

But all of this rests on a transformation in society, a fundamental cultural shift from the falsehood of “environment vs. economics” to a future where nature–based solutions create “win-win-wins”: a transition to systems and products that deliver a positive impact for the environment, for society and for the economy.

It’s a big sell. People need to see a clear pathway from polluting, wasteful choices to cleaner, sustainable alternatives. Not just blind hope, but pragmatic, clear pathways to a clear transformation.

This is where advertising, and its industry, holds the key. The advertising industry has the skills, the opportunity and perhaps the responsibility to create this new narrative. This is a chance for the sector to take leadership, gain respect and relevance.
What does the advertising industry need to do?

First, be the change you want to see in the world. Develop a plan to move to zero waste, use technology to reduce travel and flights, offset the rest. Offer genuine flexible working conditions, shift to a four-day week, move all employees to ethical superannuation.

Secondly, actively influence your clients to adopt more sustainable practices. This will require a different set of skills, longer term perspectives, systems thinking and transformative change. But most of all, evidence based, persuasive, integrated strategies.

Agencies can refuse to work with fossil fuel companies or insist these clients demonstrate commitments to change, perhaps even charge them a ‘fossil fuel levy’ and donate this to environmental charities.

Finally, the advertising industry must organise behind a common goal and take responsibility for creating new narratives. The sector needs to put aside competition between agencies and collaborate to create a grand narrative that can galvanise all Australian businesses and institutions to adapt and adopt better ways of working, for everyone’s benefit.

To date, the message about climate change has failed. If the advertising sector can recognise it has the responsibility and ability to develop a new narrative of hope, and if it can cooperate to deliver this message across its client base, then the sector can take a leading role in addressing the climate emergency.

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