The dangers of marketing’s lack of green knowledge

There’s been a general decline in the profession’s understanding of sustainability issues in recent years. What’s behind this trend – which presents significant business risks – and how can it be reversed?
Two business colleagues talking and sharing ideas amongst some plants in a green office environment.

Although marketing teams are often asked to produce material detailing their firms’ sustainability initiatives, a growing proportion feel ill-equipped to do so because they think they don’t have a strong enough grasp of environmental matters.

More than a third (35%) of marketers responding to a global survey by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) in April admitted that their knowledge of the subject was patchy. Only 20% had given that response when asked the same question two years ago. Despite this, 94% said that they were aiming to be braver when communicating their organisations’ efforts to become more eco-friendly. 

This dangerous mix of boldness and ignorance poses clear risks to them and their companies. The knowledge gap urgently needs to be closed, then, but how best should marketers and their organisations go about this?

The first thing to consider is why the gap seems to have been widening. The WFA’s latest findings could be interpreted as an increase in awareness that sustainability is a wide-ranging and highly intricate subject that many respondents now realise that they probably hadn’t fully grasped two years ago. That’s how Robert Dreblow, the federation’s global head of marketing services, sees it. 

“With the previous survey, it was a case of ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’, but now there’s a better understanding of the complexities relating to sustainability,” he suggests. “As marketers have come to realise that it can quickly become a complex area, they’ve learnt that the knowledge gap is bigger than they’d first thought.” 

Dreblow adds that it was only relatively recently that sustainability was bumped up the corporate agenda. That reprioritisation may have triggered a greater appreciation of the scale of the marketing challenge – and of how much more there is that the function ought to know. 

The complexity of the ESG landscape

His view is shared by Kirsty Hunter, chief marketing officer at Innocent Drinks. She observes that sustainability matters are “complex and continually evolving”, which makes communicating about the topic a tricky task even for the experts. 

“It can be incredibly overwhelming,” Hunter says. “With climate specialists and other scientists still trying to understand all the issues and work out the changes we need to make, it’s not surprising that marketers are feeling at a loss. The reality is that, as we learn more about all the sustainability challenges over the years, we naturally feel less sure about how to navigate them.”

A lack of sustainability knowledge can jeopardise any brand’s credibility and reputation

Adding to the challenge is the growing number of regulations for companies to comply with when reporting publicly on their environmental performance. Last year, for instance, plcs and large private firms in the UK were legally required to issue statements in line with the framework set by the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, an international body established by the G20 and the Financial Stability Board. 

Lucy Klinkenberg-Matthews is head of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) at marketing consultancy Paragon Customer Communications. She believes that “marketers are being bombarded with new developments, with sustainability issues and regulations developing at an increasing pace. They need to account for these hot topics when creating campaign messaging or contributing to a sustainability report.”

Klinkenberg-Matthews adds that, “until very recently, all the attention was on carbon reduction and net-zero targets. While these emission-cutting goals are still vital, tackling biodiversity loss has become a key consideration too.”

ESG ignorance is a risk on many levels

Given the growing regulatory pressure, marketing teams that are ill-equipped to handle sustainability issues – especially those that don’t realise they are – have the potential to harm the organisations they represent. 

Even if the content they produce does tick all the compliance boxes, consumers are becoming ever more sceptical about corporate environmental claims. Any hint of hypocrisy is likely to be highlighted swiftly and publicly on social media. 

“A lack of sustainability knowledge can jeopardise any brand’s credibility and reputation,” says Akin Garzanli, chief marketing officer at household appliances giant Arçelik. “If you don’t have the necessary skills and information to support your sustainability claims, you may face accusations of greenwashing or insincerity.” 

A lack of knowledge and/or confidence may even make firms feel unable to put out any sustainability-focused marketing material. This phenomenon has become such a trend that a term has been coined to describe it: ‘greenhushing’

“This can also be harmful, as it may signal a lack of commitment or transparency,” Garzanli says. 

Dreblow points out that marketing’s knowledge gap can also deter an organisation from seeking the function’s potentially useful input into its work on sustainability. Marketing teams could be using their strong understanding of consumer behaviour to inform more eco-friendly new business models, for instance. Or they could be applying their creative communication skills to encourage internal and external stakeholders to help the firm spot areas in which it could easily improve its environmental performance. 

Lastly, “at a macro level, funding is being made available to businesses that demonstrate strong ESG credentials”, notes Natalie Burns, strategy partner at branding agency UnitedUs. A marketing team lacking knowledge in these areas could, she warns, “block a firm’s access to such capital”.

Closing the gap requires teamwork and personal accountability

At an industry level, closing the knowledge gap will require a concerted effort from numerous stakeholders, according to Hunter. She believes there’s a need for clearer guidance providing a set of standards for marketers to follow when communicating about sustainability matters. 

“Achieving a consistent approach to best practice requires collaboration between those who assess and certify sustainability credentials, advertising regulators and the industry,” Hunter says.

That would require open conversations between brands, ad agencies, sustainability specialists, industry bodies, NGOs and wider business networks to identify the knowledge and skills that marketing needs to possess. 

As we’ve learnt more about all the sustainability challenges, we naturally feel less sure about how to navigate them

At an organisational level, closing the knowledge gap will require marketing and other key functions to break out of their silos, says Klinkenberg-Matthews. 

“There needs to be closer cooperation between marketing teams and those who are responsible for driving their organisations’ ESG initiatives,” she argues. “These people live and breathe sustainability. They’ll have in-depth knowledge of the regulations. Some of the most forward-thinking companies are combining roles in sustainability and communications to achieve this change.”

Garzanli reveals that Arçelik has created a committee that brings legal and manufacturing managers together with their marketing colleagues “to share knowledge and ensure credibility on sustainability issues. This way, marketers can catch up with the latest developments and best practices in sustainability and become more confident and effective.”

Organisations looking to educate their marketing teams also have a range of courses available to them. These include the WFA’s training for members and signatories to its Planet Pledge and marketing-specific courses offered by Ad Net Zero and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. 

But there is also an onus on marketers to accept responsibility on an individual level for self-improvement, demonstrating their professionalism by taking the initiative, according to Dreblow. 

“It’s easy to say that companies should be training all their employees in this area,” he says. But, rather than waiting for that to happen, marketers need to “help improve themselves in terms of what they’re reading and where they’re being trained”. 

Any marketer who can stay on top of developments in sustainability will be of significant value to their employer. In doing so, they’ll also set themselves apart from the many who’ve failed to come to grips with the subject, which will surely only increase in importance over the coming years.