Art & Commerce: Inconvenient Truths

NEW YORK Timberland invents a “nutritional label” for its boots—which includes data on the energy consumed in the boots’ production—and then generates 1,623,697 pieces of color-printed paper in just one run of its ad in The New York Times Magazine announcing that fact. Patagonia pledges 1 percent of its sales to preserving the natural environment, and yet prints over 20 million catalogues a year to do so.

Obviously, there’s waste in marketing. And we often expect consumers to dispose of things they have and replace them with what we’re marketing.

Nevertheless, it’s grossly negligent in this day and age to create tons of solid waste in the form of fliers, postcards, cup holders and the gamut of “nontraditional” garbage in order to forge brand connections. The vast majority of these efforts is neither effective nor memorable, and serves merely as rapid landfill. We communications players are no better than coal plants and dragnet fishing when it comes to dealing with our massive, detrimental environmental impact. We haven’t had an environmentally responsible idea since Jay Chiat’s failed paperless agency in 1993, and yet we’ve become worse while other industries endeavor to improve corporate social and environmental responsibilities.

We are, meanwhile, on the brink of another industrial revolution. Companies around the world are rethinking their individual footprints in light of tougher emissions standards and global warming, while enterprises that do business in a socially and/or environmentally conscious fashion enjoy ever-wider appeal among an ever-broader range of consumers. Despite this virtuous circle, we still blithely go about our business as usual.

We need to change the way we work both because of the mind-boggling amount of waste we specialize in producing and because, as communications creators, we are in a prime position to impact the way others work. This is our call to arms:

1. Fix our internal operations in order to do business in a responsible fashion.

We must aim to run sustainable, carbon-neutral agencies, offsetting our petroleum usage (heat, cars, air travel, etc.), travel less, and review the social and environmental impact of each and every one of our inputs (paper, coffee beans, printing, lightbulbs, paint and carpeting, etc.).

2. Call on our clients to do the same thing through re-envisioning what we make for a living.

Beyond leading through example by reducing our own corporate footprints, we must help our clients see ways to reduce theirs by offering them more sustainable ideas. First and foremost, we need to rethink and re-plan our media in terms of its environmental impact. We at Amalgamated recently made calls to several firms (including energy-offsetting companies) for our client Ben & Jerry’s to come up with a calculation that showed the impact they were making and how it could be offset. Not only could these firms not help estimate this for us, most didn’t even know where to start.

We not only need to offset our media buys (as this often leads to a false sense of “doing something” without truly shifting habits), we need to move our buys out of virgin print publications and needless outdoor and into a wider variety of non-waste-generating media.

We also need to stop producing mountains of garbage just for the sake of saying we frequently work in “nontraditional media.” We are in the business of change and creative innovation: it’s time we acted on this.

3. Assist the socially and environmentally responsible ventures of the world in opening up the conversation, as they tend to keep it amongst themselves.

Scores of enterprises that are doing great things for the world have their laudable efforts go largely unnoticed. This is due to several factors. One is fear of being labeled a “green washer,” meaning they’re fearful of the backlash that have hit some traditional companies that mask real conduct behind a thin veil of a social mission (e.g., Starbucks, BP and The Gap). Another is fear of liberals (like me) who eat their own, regardless of the fact that some of their own are doing something rather than nothing (please see my last sentence ridiculing Starbucks, BP and The Gap). And lastly, fear that a mass-communications campaign is impossible to undertake without causing further environmental damage.

Together, we can help these potential clients get over their fears by gritting our own teeth and being the avant-garde in this revolution.

Together, we can put forth a collective ideology that people can turn to in these confusing times. It is time to lead by example.