Sir Martin Sorrell thinks that with the cost of living crisis hitting hard, CEOs and consumers will stop caring about sustainability. And you know what? He’s right.

More accurately though, is that he was right, back in 2009.  A lot has changed since the last recession, and I think Sir Martin's prediction is still entrenched in this belief that sustainability equals less commercial. As marketers, (who also happen to be humans on this boiling planet), are we doing enough to challenge this belief?

Sir Martin’s view comes from an insight that consumers will be forced to spend less and therefore CEOs won’t see the financial benefit - or “the beef”, as he calls it - of investing in sustainability initiatives.  Here’s the thing - he’s not totally wrong.

A truly sustainable world is one in which we all truly consume less, from clothing, to resources, to our grocery shop.  So if consumers are genuinely going to spend less or “trade down”, then we need to be fiscally responsible - so riddle me this: how is investing to ensure your supply chain, your workers, your materials and your customers are still viable a poor investment?

If it’s just about timing - eg., the investment will stop in 2024 but then kick off again when the economy “bounces back” - then we all need to pay closer attention. We are in the last decade to slow down heating beyond 2.5 degrees, (and that is still going to come with severe consequences), so if not now, then when?

Over the last decade most brands - and yes, even CEOs - have become aware of how consumers will increasingly hold them accountable to being a 'good' business. As the voice of our customers in the boardroom, CMOs around the world have done an impeccable job of making the case for being a better business. 

So, while folks like Sir Martin argue that the cost of living crisis is an excuse to go back on this, I’m left questioning; does it mean brands should just stop focusing on cleaning up their supply chain or paying their workers fairly? What about the long-term brand damage that’ll come when the sustainability initiatives they promised their customers are put on ice?

For a moment, let’s say Sir Martin is right; that sustainability and diversity, (he wasn’t very clear on what he meant by the latter), are bad for business. What then is the role of marketers during the next decade - the last decade where we can actually slow down 'global boiling'?  Should we give up on our diversity and sustainability initiatives because of potential short- term financial impacts?

What about the long term benefits - to both us and our consumers? What will our jobs look like in a world where both the Gulf stream and the fabric of society have weakened to the point of collapse? Will we still be flogging BOGOF offers and pandering to Wall Street?

Marketers’ value has always been our deep understanding and appreciation for our customers - anticipating their needs and wants, and then speaking to them in a way that will inspire them to act, driving business results. So back to the first question posed: what is our moral obligation to them? Should we just keep selling products and services, irrespective of whether or not it hastens the collapse of our ecosystems, or should we push for better behaviour on their behalf?  

Bronwen will be writing a column for the MAD//Fest Newsletter regularly throughout the year.