The self-preservation society

Perhaps the greatest single problem for climate change and other sustainability issues – such as biodiversity loss and water scarcity – is that the time is never quite right to face up to them. Sustainability is a slow-motion crisis. More pressing issues always intervene.

It is undeniable that the unsustainable use of our planet to extract resources and deposit waste has the increasing potential to do great harm to the global economy and society. But the slow nature of these changes means that any sense of urgency is missing. Sustainability issues are rarely at the top of the international political agenda.

Business is often characterised as being motivated only by short-term profit – but in truth, major corporations are doing much more than governments in providing leadership and innovation in the field of sustainability; not out of altruism, but because the world’s largest companies, owners of the most valuable brands, have an intense interest in long-term sustainable growth. Healthy, prosperous societies create demand for their products and are capable of providing the raw materials they need. Long-established companies have learned the need to plan for the long-term with rather more success than many national governments – which have, perhaps, no more than a few years in office in which to exercise their power.

But a big question mark stills hangs over the mindset of the consumer. Our research shows that people are becoming ever more tired of the environmentalists’ messages: drive less, holiday at home, don’t eat meat, keep a smaller dog. They feel that any personal sacrifice would make a wholly insignificant difference. Climate change is a problem so inconceivably vast that it needs some ill-defined ‘Them’ to fix it.

Since the economic downturn, green issues are slipping still further down the order of priorities. Marketing strategists now need to think hard about how to re-engage the consumer.

Raw economics should provide part of the solution. Commodity prices for all basic materials, from foods to industrial raw materials to fuel, rose sharply as global GDP increased prior to 2009 and have resumed the upward trend since the bottom of the recession. This suggests that we are reaching limits to the world’s capacity to meet society’s ever-rising consumption, especially the increasing needs of the BRICs countries. It is proving increasingly difficult to grow more food or extract more oil because agricultural land and fossil fuel reserves are already stretched.

Higher prices give consumers a new and compelling reason to be green – it saves money. Nobody wanted to insulate their home when it took decades to recover the cost and few worried about the efficiency of their car when the cost of petrol represented a far smaller proportion of their disposable income. Today, market forces are at last aligning with sustainability and creating the opportunity for brands to explain to their users just how green products can help them – directly and personally.

We’re all, by nature, self-centred. Our research shows that people are more motivated by ‘my world’ than ‘the world’. It should be possible to harness these understandable instincts and guide consumers, to their own benefit, towards much more sustainable consumption.

It can’t come too soon. We’re entering a new era: resource-constrained and inflationary. The ‘super-consumption’ of the 1990s and 2000s will be replaced by the desire for more efficient and longer-lasting products. Quality will surpass quantity. This will be the spur for a wave of technical invention and product innovation providing consumers with all the satisfaction they’ve come to expect, but with a fraction of the drain on the earth’s resources. And, crucially, at lower running costs to the user. You could call it ‘The self-preservation society’.

WPP companies are increasingly charged by our clients with the task of explaining the sustainability benefits to consumers and promoting brands that offer a genuine advantage. In response, we are expanding and developing our specialist knowledge in many teams across our networks. This work demands particular expertise and sensitivities. The problems are real and complex and demand real solutions: ‘greenwashing’ is counter-productive and we invariably counsel against it.

This report also outlines our continuing work to ensure that we run our own operations responsibly. I’m pleased to report that we have reduced our carbon footprint per head by 23% since 2006, and continue to work towards an inspirational goal of a 63% reduction by 2020.

We strengthened our approach to privacy and data protection this year: key issues for our research and digital companies. Our companies continue to get involved in initiatives to increase choice and control for consumers and help maintain their trust in digital marketing.

In employment, our companies continued to promote diversity in the workplace and to deliver innovative, high-quality training to our people. At the back of this report we profile a few examples of the many pro bono projects that our companies do on behalf of charities and the social sector.

The consumer society has to change to survive – and I’m determined that our brightest talents should be equipped and available to work with our clients to help bring that change about.

I hope you find this report at least in part encouraging. Please let me have any comments or suggestions you may have. They will be most welcome.

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Sir Martin Sorrell
Group chief executive

msorrell@wpp.com