“Greenwashing is the new climate denial”, according to Laurence Tubiana, the chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and a key architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement. In Tubiana’s view, greenwashing is more dangerous and insidious than climate denial, because, without accountability rules, it is harder to identify.

Our industry must take some responsibility for the prevalence of this insidious marketing ploy, which is undermining the many genuine sustainability efforts. Greenwashing contributes to the climate crisis because it serves as a fig leaf for those companies who continue to resist doing the actual work required to make their operations sustainable, allowing them to present a palatable image to consumers while continuing to profit from climate-damaging practices. 

Corporations are even using what is referred to as ‘zombie data’ to pass off their systems and products as sustainable. According to a report from financial thinktank Planet Tracker, the fashion industry, for example, has a “serious misinformation problem” – with companies relying on zombie data to label products as sustainable and environmentally friendly when they’re anything but.

It could be argued that greenwashing is a by-product of adland’s obsession with whichever cause happens to be in vogue at any given time. Let’s face it: each awards season brings with it a new societal, environmental or humanitarian issue that brands and agencies hang their marketing agendas on. ‘Fashionable’ issues in the past have included homelessness, plastic, racism, and gender inequality. While efforts to do some good in the world or to give a platform to a cause that would otherwise go under the radar are laudable, the short termism with which many brands approach these systemic problems is not. A societal issue is not something to be picked up and then swiftly dropped as soon as a more topical cause - with more potential to be an award-winner - comes along.

If brands truly want to be considered a force of good in the world, then they need to make, and act, on long-term pledges that go beyond getting a hashtag to trend for a few hours. Contrast the amount of fleeting awards-bait campaigns we’ve seen over recent years with the meaningful, long-term business commitments from brands like Allbirds, Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s - all of which, like Havas, are certified B Corporations, committed to upholding high social and environmental standards. It is brands like these that our industry – and its award shows – should not just celebrate, but actively aspire to. They’ve shown the world how to succeed and grow as a business by putting people and planet on equal footing with profit.

Consumer trust in business has exceeded nonprofits, governments, and the media, according to a recent Edelman Trust Barometer. With the world is in crisis and undergoing some of the biggest challenges in recent memory, the brands actually making a difference are demonstrating to consumers what businesses can be capable of – and are shifting mindsets as a result. Yet many brands still seem content to do little more in terms of CSR than pay lip service to a topical cause, and by focusing only on short-term gains, are blowing a big opportunity.

Those of us working in marketing who genuinely want to make a positive societal impact must accept that doing so requires commitment, dedication, and in many cases major structural change. It is not easy, nor is it a short-term play – but as well as being the right thing to do, it will pay off, with consumers increasingly conscious of brands’ social responsibilities.

But what a brief! There’s no limit to the opportunities for businesses to make themselves more useful – and frankly, more interesting – in the world. In fact, I’d say it’s the creative opportunity of a lifetime.

Alternatively, for those lacking ambition or imagination: it’s a chance to hitch your logo to another passing bandwagon; boring at best, disingenuous and dangerous at its worst. Take your pick – either way, it won’t go unnoticed.

Vicki will be writing a column for the MAD//Fest Newsletter regularly throughout the year. Find out more here