Sustainable Advertising: Appeal, Duty, and the Green Elephant in the Room

Saving the Planet: that’s quite a brief. 

And, full disclosure – advertising can’t do it. (At least, not alone). That’s not what we’re here to say. 

ESGs, SDGs, B Corp… every natty acronym conceals a Pandora’s box of complex, textured, significant issues; issues that require a widespread socioeconomic effort, cultural paradigm shifts, and integrated, innovative technologies. 

In other words, it’s a big job. And advertisers in isolation won’t be the ones to make it happen. 

What we can be, though, is part of the conversation. Part of the solution.

Watch The Greenprint Webinar for Free

Hosted by Jon Evans and featuring representatives from ITV, M&S, and Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory.

Wait… What is Sustainable Advertising?

A contradiction in terms, surely? Well, not necessarily. 

Yes, advertising is – at its core – about making people buy things. There’s no getting around it. But that’s not the be-all and end-all. 

Advertising is also a mode of storytelling. It’s not just about making people do things; it’s about affecting the ways people think

Sustainability in advertising means embracing a narrative of responsibility, ethics, and conscious choices. It’s a platform for eco-conscious connections between brands and consumers, through campaigns, strategies, and green messaging that not only showcase planet-friendly products, but also communicate the broader values and commitments of brands toward a sustainable future.

One note: it’s important to differentiate between genuine sustainable advertising and greenwashing. 

The latter involves making deceptive or exaggerated claims about a product’s environmental benefits. True sustainability in advertising goes beyond superficial green imagery.

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will change it.”

Robert Swan OBE, polar explorer & renewable energy advocate


Sustainable marketing stands as a strong incentive for brands to align with environmentally conscious consumers, fostering a sense of responsibility and an ethical commitment to do better for the planet and the future.


1. Showcase a Brand’s Environmental Impact

To authentically engage, brands must move beyond green imagery and demonstrate a real commitment. Being carbon neutral or striving for net-zero emissions shows a genuine effort to prioritise environmental responsibility, enhancing brand credibility.

2. Promote Green Choices

Good sustainability advertising encourages – rather than tells – consumers to make more eco-friendly decisions. System1 found that highlighting the feel-good factor of a sustainable lifestyle is far more powerful than dogmatically instructing users on ‘the right way to live.’


3. Provoke Consumer Action

Sustainable marketing isn’t just about ideals; it’s also a commercial imperative. You motivate consumers to purchase by aligning products and messaging with environmental values, driving positive change through conscious commercial choices.

4. Sharing Knowledge

Sustainable advertising educates and empowers an audience. By sharing research and insights, for instance, brands become trusted sources of information, contributing to eco-oriented consumer relationships.


How It’s Done: 3 Tips For Sustainability in Marketing 

So how can advertisers do sustainability marketing… better? Below, we outline three core strategies.



Triggering change follows the behavioural science EAST framework. Whether it’s sustainability, better eating habits, quitting smoking, or cycling to visit friends rather than taking the car, messaging should be: 

  • Easy: Identify what might appear as insignificant barriers, and remove them.
  • Attractive: If you want to encourage dairy alternatives, focus on an improved taste rather than environmental impact.
  • Social: When it appears that everyone else is behaving sustainably, you encourage others to join this in-group.
  • Timely: People are more open to changing behaviours at fresh-start moments, such as the beginning of a new year, or after a major event.


IKEA – Fortune Favours the Frugal

IKEA presents a masterclass in the EAST principle. This ad makes sustainable lifestyle choices: 

  • Easy, through small and incidental recycling moments visibly diminishing a doomsday-style meteor. 
  • Attractive, through that aspirational lifestyle aesthetic that IKEA has become so well-known for. 
  • Social, through showing a range of diverse characters, all with agency and betweenness.
  • Timely, through the immediacy of an incoming meteor.

Appeal? Yes. Duty? No.

The most effective sustainability marketing appeals to what audiences find enticing or inviting, rather than imposing a sense of duty. That’s no fun for a viewer or listener. 

Aligning environmental initiatives with what the audience cares about directly, in their own lives, drives behavioural change without invoking a burdensome feeling of obligation. 

This works for two key reasons: it reduces fear of having to trade something attractive for something mandatory. And it avoids moral licensing, where a person might feel so good about a positive behaviour they feel licensed to ‘get away with’ something negative.


eBay x Love Island: Find the pre-loved of your life

eBay’s Love Island partnership is a lesson in how high-impact sponsorship should look. Rather than having brand messages bookend the show’s segments, eBay is ‘a guest’ that lives within the Love Island universe. The partnership shines a light on pre-loved – not ‘second-hand’, you’ll notice – fashion, effectively incentivising sustainability without preaching, lecturing, or yelling about it.

Don’t Browbeat With Data – Tell a Story 

The environment is a huge issue; it’s sometimes hard for individuals to relate to, because it gets framed around statistics and abstract notions. Naturally, humans remember and respond better to tangible, relatable cues. 

Narrative and characterisation are two things that can really boost effectiveness. Fluent Devices (such as characters, jingles, and motifs) recur across campaigns, building familiarity as well as positive emotion. 

A well-loved character is something a consumer can instantly relate to, and as brand mascots, they tie positive emotion back to your brand.


GWR – Five Get There First

Rather than approaching the eco-impact of train travel in a scientific way, Great Western Railway deploys the fluent device of the Famous Five, this time on a trip to the seaside. Messaging is made more tangible through comedy and a feel-good factor, and in the hapless aunt and uncle, we see the ‘identifiable victim effect’: we empathise more when we see hardship befall recognisable individuals.

Seeds For the Future: The Greenprint

Unfortunately, brands often find themselves undone by strategic missteps. Miscommunication, along with misleading green claims, are all too common. 

One pitfall is the tendency to preach about duty – audiences, after all, don’t want a stern lecture on the environment. 

Another is to focus on low-impact behaviours, rather than actions that can help trigger genuine change. 

Unsurprisingly, too, the trap of generic, unemotional, uncreative ads results only in mundane and monotonous communication.

But there is a better way. Consumers are actively looking for authenticity, creativity, and emotional resonance.

“Audiences are open and receptive to green messaging from advertisers,” System1 reports in The Greenprint. “There are numerous studies suggesting that brands with green credentials are more appealing to at least some segments of consumers.”

Consumers want to engage with sustainability messaging. 

The challenge for advertisers is this: finding effective ways to tell that story. Do that, and we help to address the serious climate issues facing our planet; we help to address the green elephant in the room.

Watch The Greenprint Webinar for Free

Hosted by Jon Evans and featuring representatives from ITV, M&S, and Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory.