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Marketing and Comms
Can Advertising Ever Really Be Good for The Planet?

Ad-tech platform Good-Loop is helping advertisers connect with the public and overcome people’s desire to block ads by combining consumer engagement with charitable brand donations.

2023 saw a further wave of brands get behind the anti-Black Friday movement buoyed by a growing group of people concerned about the environmental implications of consumerism. Joining the likes of REI and Patagonia in boycotting the traditional day of discounted sales were beauty brand Lush, sustainable shoemaker Veja and UK electrical retailer Curry’s — which, instead of selling as many TVs and stereo systems as possible, used Black Friday to offer deals on home appliances that reduce energy usage.

Yes, people are becoming more worried about what overconsumption means for the planet — but also about the impact of flash sales and marketing on people’s mental health. As the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute points out, events such as Black Friday can “place great stress on people’s shopping experience. Periods of poor mental health can in some cases be accompanied by more impulsive decision making, or anxiety and worry about the future.” In selling us stuff we don’t really need, reinforcing a fear of missing out and, in some cases, using aggressive tactics to boost sales, the advertising industry has rightly come under scrutiny.

There have been pockets of progress in making sure that the advertising we do see is at least not fuelling sales of the most environmentally damaging industries. In France, for example, legislation has been introduced banning the advertising of energy products related to fossil fuels; and Sydney, Australia has banned fossil fuel-related advertising across its properties and events.

And then there’s the environmental impact of online advertising, in particular. According to Purpose Disruptors, it is responsible for around 28 percent of the average consumer’s carbon footprint. Another study finds that online advertising “consumes vast amounts of energy” — contributing up to 20 percent of the total internet infrastructure’s consumption.

But what if advertising could be good? After all, the industry is one of the most influential drivers in changing the way we buy, use and dispose of everything.

Well, Amy Williams believes she has hit on an idea that will transform how we consume adverts online. She is co-founder of Good-Loop — an ethical ad agency that “exists to make advertising a positive force in the world,” says Williams, who describes herself as an “accidental sustainability nerd” whose previous career was the “antithesis of sustainability.”

“I had a moment where I reflected on what I was doing, and it didn’t feel important enough,” she tells Sustainable Brands®. “Selling more fabric conditioner is not important enough. I remember thinking, ‘I either quit and retrain to become a lawyer or a doctor, or I can stay where I am and use this industry to do good and turn the tanker in the right direction.’”

Excited by what the ad industry is capable of (“Thanks to its one-pack-one-vaccine program with UNICEF, Pampers has wiped out neonatal tetanus in multiple countries”), she chose the latter: “I don’t think big corporates are going to save the world; they’re going to make money and they’re going to do it any way they can. But it’s my job to show them how they can make money by doing good.”

Clicks, eyeballs and impressions

The idea for Good-Loop was born out of a frustration with ad-blocking (“the biggest boycott in human history”). A third of all internet users block ads from their user experience — and that’s bad news for brands. They don’t want to annoy online consumers; but they do want to be seen and heard, to build trust and foster connection. “Everything is so focused on clicks and eyeballs, and achieving the lowest possible price for the highest number of impressions. All of the incentives are misaligned to create a really unpleasant advertising experience,” Williams says.

Brands that use Good-Loop as their agency can combine getting those eyeballs and engagement with making a charitable donation. If online users choose to engage with a brand, they unlock a free donation funded by the brand. To give an example: Healthy snack giant Nature Valley’s purpose is all about getting people out into nature; and it has a big platform focused on on protecting and preserving national parks. The company worked with Good-Loop to create a bespoke ad experience whereby users who don’t press the ‘skip ad’ button on the video ad help to fund the brand’s national park preservation efforts.

“Last year, the brand planted over 66,000 trees in US National parks using the money that’s generated every time someone doesn’t skip the ad,” Williams explains. “It’s a little value exchange — which says, ‘if you give some attention to this ad, we’ll give a donation.’”

The company also makes sure brand ads are as sustainable as possible (by compressing font files or reducing animation libraries, for example, so they use as little energy as possible) before distributing them across the web and social platforms. It also offers a service to measure the carbon impact of digital campaigns, with the option to buy offsets and take action to reduce it.

“We also work with our customers to fund climate journalism — because wherever your ads appear, you are funding that journalism. That’s a big part of the responsibility of advertisers.”

Beach ideas

Good-Loop was also born out of Williams’ experience working with brands that were increasingly investing in social purpose. Among her clients, Unilever brand Dove’s Real Beauty” campaign was gaining traction with customers, and yet it was completely disconnected from the media landscape. She could see an opportunity, but it would take a few more years for Williams to realise the potential of her idea.

She quit her job in Ad Agency Land, and enrolled herself on a female-only entrepreneurship course in South America. It was there, on the beaches of Val Paso, Chile, that her ideas for Good-Loop started to formulate. On her return home to the UK, she met Daniel Appel — a Scot who was in the process of building a white-label advertising technology — in an online forum; and they decided to build their new business idea together.

“That was in October. By Christmas, we had investment and I pitched the idea for Good-Loop to my old client at Unilever; and we were put into their brilliant little incubator, called the Unilever Foundry,” Williams says. “As soon as we got Unilever, I went straight to The Drum — we got front-page coverage, the wheels started rolling and we gained momentum really quickly.”

Williams puts her success down to leveraging the storytelling and the inspiring aspect of using big brands to do good. Seven years after launch, Good-Loop has raised more than £8 million for charities around the world and measured and offset the carbon emissions from over two billion ads: “We’ve worked with 80 percent of the world’s top 100 brands; and I'm proud to say we’re the first ad-tech company in the world to be B Corp-certified.”

As she ponders what she has achieved so far, Williams admits she never imagined Good-Loop having this much impact.

“It’s not recognizable to the business I planned on those beaches in Chile; but the fundamental idea of harnessing the power, scope and influence of the world’s biggest brands hasn’t changed.”

Other than “eating an elephant in chunks and never looking too far ahead,” does she have any advice for people starting up purpose-led businesses?

“Don’t be embarrassed about making good profit margins. I think for a lot of social businesses, there’s an expectation that they survive on crumbs because the mission is so big and worthy that all the money should go there. But running a business on tiny margins is unsustainable; and if you really want to make change, you have to build a sustainable business first and then worry about sustainability.”