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Marketing and Comms
Many Marketers Feel ‘Capability Gap’ When It Comes to Sustainability Communication

Many marketing professionals feel they need to be braver and clearer in their sustainability communications to avoid greenwashing; but over a third don’t feel they have the capacity or knowledge to do so.

A new global survey of the marketing industry has found that the profession is lagging behind other areas of business when it comes to understanding and advancing the broad agenda of sustainability.

Sustainable Marketing 2030, from the World Federation of Advertisers in partnership with Kantar’s Sustainable Transformation Practice, asserts that Marketing needs to catch up with other departments — with the largest share of marketers surveyed (39 percent) still only taking the first steps on their sustainability journeys.

Some challenges appear to have become more prominent in recent years, so much so that the size and scale of change are gradually dawning on marketers as they learn more — capability gaps were cited by 35 percent versus 20 percent in 2021.

Sustainable Marketing 2030 is based on quantitative and qualitative research conducted between October 2022 and March 2023 based on 18 in-depth vision interviews with Global CMOs and 10 interviews with sustainability experts, as well as responses from 938 senior client-side marketers across 48 countries worldwide — including a wide mix of territories, company sizes and categories. The study highlights a greater ambition to transform — with 90 percent of marketers agreeing that sustainability agendas must be more ambitious and 94 percent saying marketers need to act more bravely and experiment to drive transformative change. This is reflected in more brands now having sustainability as a KPI in their marketing dashboards — up from 26 percent in 2021 to 43 percent in 2023.

Additionally, despite the fear of being accused of greenwashing, 82 percent say companies need to be braver in communicating their sustainability efforts — with 41 percent of brands now saying they have a sustainability story and are proud to share it, compared to 25 percent in 2021.

54 percent agreed with the need to educate people about their choices and actions, reflecting the insight that marketing must seek to drive and normalize new sustainable behaviors — both internally and externally.

The top challenges identified are organizational issues: a lack of internal resources (35 percent), a knowledge and skills gap (35 percent), organizational mindset (32 percent said that sustainable solutions are perceived as costly), the lack of a P&L policy that protects the planet (35 percent), and a lack of transparency in measurement (30 percent).

Progress will require marketers to leverage innovation and creativity to make a difference to the business — with innovation cited as the top opportunity to drive transition (57 percent), followed by new business models (55 percent) and educating consumers at scale (54 percent).

"Marketers are finally starting to grasp the scale of the sustainability challenge, particularly the climate crisis. We have reached the point where the status quo is no longer an option; radical transformation is essential,” said WFA CEO Stephan Loerke. “We passionately believe that marketers are uniquely placed to drive the change we need on account of their unique creativity, innovation and communication skillset. The Sustainable Marketing 2030 initiative focuses on how marketers can drive growth while embracing the sustainability agenda.”

Reimagining the role of marketing

Sustainable Marketing 2030 includes a circular marketing framework that reimagines marketing’s role within the business and its ability to drive growth in a way that is compatible with a sustainable future. The shift to a circular understanding of value presents an opportunity for leaders to drive new ways of thinking and acting — with 44 percent agreeing that the organizational value chain holds opportunities that marketing can leverage. Partnerships have the potential to play a vital role in driving the pace and scale of change required. 46 percent of respondents agreed that marketing could drive a bigger impact through collective responsibility.

Other key findings from Sustainable Marketing 2030 include:

  • A job for all: Sustainability does not neatly fit into one function and is increasingly seen as a job for all departments and roles within an organization. A lack of standardized measurement to provide a common language and monitor progress is a recurring challenge, along with a continuing knowledge gap (35 percent in 2023 vs 20 percent in 2021).

  • An opportunity for marketing: The marketing function is still felt to be lagging compared to the rest of the business in terms of sustainable transformation. Marketing has the budget and authority to better activate sustainability within the strategic agenda, in tandem with sustainability departments and other functions.

  • The scale of the challenge: As people become more aware of the response required to solve issues related to the climate crisis, they understand that what their organizations are currently doing is not enough, despite making meaningful progress. As a result, organizational confidence is down — with fewer companies seen to be performing in the top bracket (from 29 percent in 2021 down to 15 percent in 2022).

Sustainable Marketing 2030 focuses on the value-action gap within marketing organizations. It’s remarkable that even though 94 percent of marketers are willing to be brave to drive transformative change, organizations still behave in the same way,” says Ozlem Senturk, Senior Partner at Kantar’s Sustainable Transformation Practice. “Our benchmark aims to provide marketing organizations with a compass to assess where they are and help them take the first steps towards the right direction.”