The current health emergency has put life on pause. A consequence of our lives-under-lockdown has been a glimpse into a world with significantly reduced carbon emissions and human activity – from visible reductions in nitrogen dioxide from satellite imagery to equally visible re-introductions of goats and deer to village towns and clear water to canals.
But these images shouldn't act as a respite from the immediate crisis we are facing – they should be a reminder, not just on Earth Day, to people and brands that we were already facing a crisis as a planet before Covid-19 emerged. And how drastically governments and businesses around the world have reacted to the global pandemic - and rightly so - has made me wonder why we weren't behaving in the same way with the climate emergency.
In our family, we’ve always encouraged debate and discussion, usually over dinner. And my daughter has always been keen to share her passion points. I’ll always remember the day I put the wrong type of plastic into the recycling. Not only did she stop me, she spent an hour online to create a guide for our family to be more aware of what we should and should not recycle. It now lives above the bins, and I’ve never made the same mistake again.
Schooled by a 9-year-old! That’s how I feel most days, thankful for the little (now, not so little) home activist I am raising.
As my daughter grew up, she has become more engaged in the big issues we face as a society. She leads the family in writing placards and attending marches as well as keeping us in check at home. I don’t think we’ve had a product with palm oil in our house for over five years in the fight for orangutan conservation. And time and again she has challenged and changed my opinions and thinking.
And the more I find myself spending time discussing the ongoing climate emergency with her, the more I am left with a burning question: Why are children acting with such urgency and immediacy that we adults and agency leaders don’t seem to be? Why is my 11-year old an activist, while I am not?
It is a question that all of us need to answer. Research shows that while people of all ages and backgrounds have thought about the climate crisis, it is the younger generations who view it as an issue we need to address immediately. Yes, they certainly have more stake and will have to wade through our muck for much longer than we will have to. But I also think they haven’t yet been conditioned to buy into all the nonsense. They can see through the stinking fumes that shroud our judgement and slow our deeds.
The current global situation has made it more apparent than ever before how connected we all are. And how much of an impact a shift in our behaviour can make. There is an incredible opportunity for brands to embrace this activism spirit and become positive forces in driving the eco-revolution. And I believe that media and advertising can play an important role.
As former speaker John Bercrow noted recently, “there is an opportunity for advertisers to power the green revolution, making money whilst being ethically virtuous.” To move forward and make progress at the necessary rate, we need to think less like marketers, and more like activists. Or more like my 11-year-old.
Activism doesn’t have to be lofty, or illegal and isn’t brazen PR stunts. It can be the development of small, daily habits and behaviours across millions that culminate in something transformative. Organisations such as Friends of the Earth provide the information we all need to start to activate these new habits swiftly.
Giants like Unilever have been leading this charge. Its Sustainable Living Plan, which seeks to reduce its environmental impact and drive change through its brands, has highlighted a position that we must all start to take: building businesses that address change through action.
We need to find ways to embed real change throughout our entire business and across brands, products and functions. Last year WPP pledged to remove all single-use plastics from its 3,000 offices, which was a bold and inspiring move, but also just the first step.
In London, we’ve recently named two Sustainability Officers to help us supercharge our daily eco-efforts. We are lucky to have people passionate about sustainability at the agency, and two of them have accepted to help us evolve our business practices to positively impact the environment and to help our people cultivate daily sustainable practices.
Already in 2016, the Guardian reported that climate change could kill more than 500,000 people a year globally by 2050 by making their diets less healthy, and it was at the time judged by doctors as the greatest threat to health in the 21st century, due to floods, droughts and increased infectious diseases. Crafting a safe, sustainable future for all is a challenge shared across humanity.
Can you imagine the difference our industry could make if part of our new virtual working habits carried on beyond the current health crisis? Now that we know remote working is not only possible, but successful, we should be able to keep the frequency in flights and commutes reduced. This is an opportunity to embrace these new ways of working internally and with clients and find the incremental changes that will move us all towards more sustainable business practices.
So what will we make a sign about and stick on the wall? What products or practices will we banish from our metaphorical company larder? What marches will we walk on? Who will we drag with us?
Taking a frank and honest look at our preconceptions of what we can and cannot do - especially as we experience some of the greatest change our generation and industry has ever faced. We need to keep tapping into our activist mindset and our collective responsibility to attack the climate issue with the same vigour and immediacy.
What a silver lining it would be for these unprecedented times. And probably the only way I’ll enjoy my dinner in peace again.
Justin Pahl is CEO at VMLY&R London. Article originally published by The Drum.