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April 24, 2024

How agencies can advocate for environmental responsibility

In honor of Earth Day, AdForum recently interviewed VSA’s Dana Arnett about the unique role agencies can play in advocating for environmental sustainability.

In the piece, Dana highlights the difference it makes when you have a great client partner that is truly committed to sustainable practices, like our client Sappi.

He also discusses how agencies and clients can quickly ramp up their sustainability efforts, and the power agencies have to drive real change.

Read the piece below, or click here to view the original piece on AdForum.

How are you advising clients on sustainable messaging and product development?

Perhaps the most important part of sustainable messaging is having a client that’s truly committed to sustainable practices. We’ve partnered with Sappi, a global renewable-resource company in packaging, paper goods and beyond, for over 30 years. We’re constantly assessing how to tell its sustainability story in a way that’s true, contextualized and balanced. A lot of sustainability messaging is overly simplistic or, worst of all, can be considered greenwashing. But the unfortunate truth, which the public is starting to understand, is that operating in a sustainable way is complex and requires intention and attention across a resource’s and product’s life cycle.

This is why we’ve been developing a more holistic messaging strategy for Sappi that speaks to the circular, renewable ecosystem it champions — from sustainable forestry and manufacturing to end-consumer products and end-of-life treatments — and creates accountability across it.

Have you implemented any sustainability initiatives in your own workflow? If so, can you tell us what steps other agencies can take to lead by example and adopt sustainable practices within their own operations?

For agencies looking to quickly ramp up their sustainability practices, one easy place to start is by advocating for branded products with purpose. When we design clients’ events, employee experiences and other branded moments, we make sure not to advocate for tchotchkes that will likely be discarded and create more waste, and instead try to consider longer-term utility and value when creating physical items.

For example, we work on a winter holiday kit for Sappi every year. The goal of this kit, which started as a sales tool to engage prospects and clients, has evolved to be a reflection of Sappi’s culture and a truly valuable gift. The kit is designed with key sustainability principles in mind: Can the kit be used all year-round? Can the parts of the kit be reused? Can the parts of the kit serve different functions? We want to create something that’s immensely and continuously valuable — while sparking joy. This year, the kit was inspired by the growing trend to “treat yourself,” finding small everyday pleasures and moments of joy. By connecting to such a strong emotion like joy and designing for utility and purpose, the Sappi holiday kit is not a throwaway swag item or holiday card. Instead, it’s a year-long reminder of the brand and a source of smiles for customers, partners and employees alike.

In what ways can agencies help promote sustainable practices and drive meaningful change towards environmental protection?

Agencies play a critical role in this. We can be an advocate of environmental protection within clients’ organizations, helping them to be accountable stewards as they consider how their business practices and operations are, or are not, reinforcing their brand promises and purpose. We are also at the center of public perception and understanding. When agencies get a story right — in an advertising campaign, in communications — it sticks in a person’s mind. At our best, the stories we create aren’t just memorable; they are influential. They change how we see an issue, how we’ll act because of that issue and often, how we talk about and galvanize others around that issue. If we can simplify and connect sustainability stories to what is relevant and motivating to people, we can drive meaningful change around environmental protection, advocacy and accountability.

For example, with Sappi, we’ve done a series of videos highlighting the tangible impacts of its sustainability work, featuring its people who are on the front lines of making a difference for the environment. By showing real people in real situations, we bring powerful evidence to back up our larger promises.

What is your POV on advertising’s responsibility to take action in shifting consumer preferences towards eco-conscious practices, brands, and products?

If we want to solve the climate crises we currently face, we all have a part to play in imagining and building a better way. This is no different for the advertising industry — and in fact, we are in a unique position to influence and advocate for better practices, both with our clients and consumers.

Consumers are a critical force for driving change, and through their actions, loyalty and wallets, they can make a big difference. But first, they need options to choose from. Advertisers can continue to find ways to help eco-conscious practices, brands and products shine through, and to get in front of consumers ready to buy more sustainable products. However, as noted, being eco-first often goes far beyond a single company or product. There’s so much that’s invisible to the consumer, across parts of the supply chain and outside of any brand’s control. We as an advertising industry should continue to advocate for environmental transparency, protection and safety, while also finding ways to help consumers see the whole story and engage in deeper discussions for systemic change.

Dana Arnett

Dana Arnett

Chairman & Founder

For nearly four decades, Dana has been a guiding force behind VSA’s creation of brand programs, digital and interactive initiatives, and marketing solutions for its diverse roster of world-class clients. After serving for many years as VSA’s CEO, Dana guides the strategic growth of the agency in his current role as Chairman and Founder. Since founding VSA with Robert Vogele, his career has been steeped in design leadership, policymaking, business and brand consulting, and a long record of public service. He has been recognized internationally by multiple organizations for his contributions to design and design thinking, including the Smithsonian Institute. In 2016, Dana worked with the State Department under the Obama administration to brand and launch Spark, the first-ever government-led global entrepreneurship initiative. Dana is a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale, a recipient of the AIGA Medal, and a former board member of the Architecture & Design Society at the Art Institute of Chicago and Project&. He recently served as National President of the AIGA and currently stars as the co-host of Design Observers’ The Design of Business | The Business of Design podcast.