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Green is the new black - sustainability leads the way

Being green has long since left the confines of hippie culture, and there is now enormous pressure on us as individuals to behave in an environmentally and socially responsible way, writes Amanda Phillips, chief executive of Proximity London.

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This pressure has also come to bare on the brands we deal with on a daily basis, and the ability to communicate strong green credentials has become as important an element in marketing communications as any other.

Consumers are also becoming increasingly sceptical of brands making claims about the effect they have on the environment, and on sustainable development. Most importantly, the proliferation of social media and blogging has given a voice to the individual, and enabled the thoughts and opinions of that individual to be shared and debated by an almost limitless audience.

This offers considerable opportunities for brands to better understand their audience and, when they have real green credentials or can demonstrate tangible steps to sustainability, engage consumers with this. But it can also present an enormous risk for those brands that cannot evidence the claims they make, with like minded consumers can share their negative perceptions and in extreme cases even instigating boycotts of certain brands.

As a result, brand owners and marketers are experiencing increased media scrutiny, with some even being accused of using "greenwash" tactics when extolling their eco-friendly virtues.

So if mainstream brands -- especially those not traditionally aligned with the sustainability agenda -- are to thrive, they must heed consumer attitudes and consider how to communicate their stance long term. And as agencies working with brands, this is our opportunity to take the lead on this fundamental issue.

We are, after all, the prime conduit through which brands can communicate their values to consumers. As experts at managing brands, relationships and behaviours, we should work with our clients to change their own perceptions, and encourage and facilitate a more sustainable approach to business and communications.

We have demonstrated to clients how we are taking the matter seriously by using our innovation lab, The Dreamery, to ask separate groups of 16-year-olds and marketing directors how the world might look in 2020. This insight has proved invaluable, not least because these consumers of tomorrow are most likely to influence the sustainability agenda in years to come. By involving marketing directors in the process they were able to hear first hand how passionate and dedicated these young people are to solving the environmental challenges of today.

But this is not just happening on case by case basis with individual clients and agencies. I established the IPA's Sustainability Working Party to help the industry as a whole develop more sustainable business models and communications solutions. But before we do this, we had to make clients and agencies aware of their impact on the environment.

We must remember that sustainability is not a quick fix. If companies are to align their corporate and brand values with consumer opinion, then this can often mean a monumental shift in the way they do business. Of course, we shouldn't rush out to paint the town green. We know only too well that brands who have merely paid lip service to sustainability have fallen foul of their own hype and been labelled hypocrites.

Beyond the long-term and global impact sustainability represents, bringing brand and marketing communication strategies closer to wider corporate strategic thinking has huge implications for brands today. By doing so we can truly make ‘green the new black', and take the competitive advantage the sustainability agenda presents.

Amanda Phillips is chief executive of Proximity London

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