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When Futerra started out with its mission to make sustainability the norm, the odds were against them. Twelve years later the UK based communication agency has firmly secured its position as expert, drawing high-profile clients from Unilever to Kingfisher.
For Gillespie the issue around sustainability does not stop after leaving the office. He is known as a slow traveller, exploring routes on the ground rather than opting for the short track via the sky. He sees the interrelation between people-planet-profit as an opportunity to do things better; and to creatively disrupt existing models which make alternative solutions more attractive. The Curve talked to him about why sustainability has turned from a road less travelled to one that is leading the way.
Curve: You have been focusing on sustainability communication for 12 years. What was it like to start out?
Ed Gillespie: It was quite a lonely road to be ploughing. People thought that we were either a bit maverick or a bit on the fringe. The players in the mainstream marketing and communications world more or less paid lip service to the issue. From a visual perspective however, everything was ‘green’ and there was a lot of that fairly stereotypical green imagery which came along with it such as hands nurturing small, vulnerable plants and so on.
Curve: What are some of the changes you noticed since then?
EG: What we have seen over the last 10 years is sustainability slowly entering the boardroom in a way it never did before. It has become an issue concerning the core business rather than ‘housekeeping’ which is obviously having a big impact on the way it is being communicated.
The debate is shifting from ‘what is the sustainability strategy in context of our business’ to ‘what is the business strategy in context of sustainability’. Pioneering companies are realizing that it is not a CSR function on the margin. They are increasingly asking themselves ‘what does this tangibly and fundamentally mean to the very nature of our company’? We are not talking anymore about recycling bins but how we can re-formulate core products and services to respond to the challenge of sustainability.
Curve: How would you describe this new visual language around sustainability, which is slowly emerging?
EG: Well, so much of the talk around environment and sustainability from a visual perspective was around doom and gloom, showing the cliched polar bears and melting ice caps, decimated forests - you name it. It was mainly about ‘shock tactics’. Where we are headed towards now, and I think this trend is definitely ongoing, is trying to create compelling, aspirational pictures of what sustainability looks like.
It is not about a world which is necessarily about sacrifices but about real smart substitutions. We are trying to celebrate the fact that it is about common sense and about elegant, intelligent ways of living. The visuals have got to emerge from that.
Unfortunately we are still struggling a bit with those at this stage, although some of the mocked up adverts are classic: people drinking a glass of water that is coming out of the tail part of a car because it runs on hydrofuel. I think those kind of images are incredibly powerful.
Curve: So far, what are the biggest challenges in communicating sustainability successfully?
EG: Simplicity. A lot of our work revolves around developing concepts that will bring sustainability initiatives to life. Some of the work we have done with Unilever on their Sustainable Living Plan or Kingfisher’s Net Positive are all trying to encapsulate the complexity about sustainable business initiatives. There is a fine line between simplicity and oversimplification. If you oversimplify you lose the magic and the core credibility that underpins the whole thing.
Curve: By developing these concepts do you (inevitably) also change behavioral patterns?
EG: You are trying to upset the orthodoxy within an organisation in a way because there are certain ways of doing things. I think this is also the underlying reason why sustainability has become a broader issue. Businesses that are resistant to change are those ones who are likely to run into trouble. Sustainability is also a great way of unlocking the potential for innovation. People want work in a company that does good and that does well. If you can use sustainability to open up the enthusiasm and engagement of your team then that is an amazing thing.
Curve: Do you think social media will contribute to more transparency around the issue?
EG: For one, sustainability is becoming so much more embedded. In terms of the visual language perspective a lot is still happening internally. The big mistake here is if the marketing teams think it only has a niche appeal instead of recognizing the potential to transform both people’s perceptions and expectations of what sustainability might look, feel and be like.
Curve: Why do companies choose a specialist agency rather than taking it on internally?
EG: I can only speak from a Futerra perspective: we have accumulated a lot of hard practical experience over a dozen years. And we have done a lot of thinking. This is hard to recreate.
Our sole focus has always been on sustainability. We are a value- and mission-led organisation and our aim is to make sustainability so desirable that it becomes normal. As businesses are getting mission-led they want to know what leads agencies. In some ways the alignment is as simple as that.