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Making Sustainability More Inclusive in the Advertising Industry

By Rachel Schnorr

As we come out of some powerful conversations about sustainability and climate change at Cannes, we have the opportunity to put our words into action. As we get to work, we must keep in mind that sustainability is a "we" issue. It affects every community around the world. While we all are and will continue to be affected, vulnerable and historically marginalized communities will be even more severely affected.

People who have been historically discriminated against and have lower incomes, fewer rights, and those who live in low-lying and under-resourced areas stand to suffer disproportionately, here and abroad. This fact doesn't occupy enough of our industry's daily mindshare when it comes to the climate crisis and our overall sustainability actions.

Keeping this reality in mind is critical as we set our sustainability strategies. Many companies in our industry operate at a global scale, and/or across the disparate corners of the U.S. We must take action to find an equitable approach for sustainability.

Driving Equitable Changes Big and Small

As a community, we can effect changes big and small, ensuring that we are inclusive in our sustainability strategies at every level. From a top-down standpoint, many large companies have set sustainability goals and hired executives to drive strategies that will help achieve those goals, and many small and medium-sized businesses are also realizing the need to build their businesses with sustainability at the center.

Those of us in marketing and advertising roles must play our part. While the direct footprint of the advertising industry is around 2 to 3 percent globally, advertising plays an outsized role in its influence to drive consumer behavior and demand for all other sectors. We need to make strides to connect with those sustainability leaders, and to advocate for an equitable approach as we do so.

In our day-to-day jobs, we can also be more inclusive. Sustainability is, at its core, about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It needs to be a layer that goes across all the different parts of our organization, creating a matrix that we are all a part of. From an organization's energy consumption through operations and how advertising gets produced and delivered, to its sustainability messaging to decisions about charitable spending and key causes and communities to partner with, we can all make better daily decisions with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind.

First, Educate Yourself

It will be easier to make the case and to make smart choices when you have the data to back you up. Learn more about the vulnerable populations who will suffer most from climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that the groups most susceptible during extreme climate events include "low-income households, communities of color, those experiencing homelessness, and immigrant populations."

These groups are less likely to have healthy living conditions (less access to air conditioning, living in an area that has been deprioritized and under resourced, facing food insecurity), less health insurance and medical treatment, for two examples. Both urban and rural populations are vulnerable in different ways, from having less stable housing to fewer resources when there is a disaster.

On a global level, poorer, less developed nations, especially those where temperatures will become unsafe, stand to suffer. Populations that live below sea level, have less reliable infrastructure, little access to health care, or are underrepresented in government are also very vulnerable. Knowing the facts is a good start to understanding where help is needed and where sustainability efforts can deliver the biggest impact.

As the recent Bill and Melinda Gates foundation "Climate and Development Finance" report states: "Trying to build a prosperous global economy without investing in lower-income countries would be like trying to fuel the tech revolution of the 2000s while ignoring Silicon Valley."

It's also important to understand your company's operational footprint. Most companies don't create emissions in the same place where many of their executives live and work. It's important to know where your company's emissions are coming from, including your company's supply chain, how your offices, factories and data centers are powered and how this overlaps with at-risk populations in the U.S. and abroad. Consider initiatives your company can embrace that includes a wider set of affected people.

Project Drawdown is one example of a great resource, providing a list of 100 innovative solutions to take action for climate change.

Ensure Diversity Is Represented

Any company with a global footprint is best served with a global approach. Reach out to your sustainability leaders and your DEI leaders and work to make connections and gather resources in other countries relevant to your company's operations. When building advisory teams and champion communities internally, or when hiring outside sustainability consultants, ensure representation is diverse and includes underrepresented groups.

Diversity is a strength in any situation, and especially one as critical as this. Include a variety of voices, backgrounds, and regions when you're planning campaigns and events around sustainability. While the ad industry has made gains, our workforce is still not representative of the overall population, and representation within sustainability work in particular is even more behind.

As part of more diverse representation, sustainability messaging should also be more mindful of these dynamics and realities. Make sure that campaigns more fairly represent more communities, and the wider world. People are becoming open minded about change because we see climate change happening all around us. Check out the #ChangeTheBrief Alliance, a not-for-profit partnership between agencies of every size and type, media, creative, design, PR, and their clients, learning and acting together to directly address the challenge of the climate crisis by being more thoughtful in creating new norms through advertising campaigns.

This is an opportunity to create new norms, combating stereotypes and correcting ways that representation has been lacking - both within your own organization and with regard to creating more awareness of marginalized and vulnerable communities.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Rachel Schnorr is USA membership director at Ad Net Zero.