An Opportunity to Rebuild, Better: Marie Stafford, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence

by Jamel D. Nelson , AdForum

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Marie Stafford
Global Director, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence Wunderman Thompson

Wunderman Thompson recently released their latest trend report on sustainability, exploring how the conversations and actions around the topic are evolving. We were able to speak with Marie Stafford, co-Global Director for Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, to gain more insight into what brands are doing to show commitment to the environment and how they're communicating these initiatives with consumers. Read below to learn more about regeneration, the disproportionate effects of climate change on certain communities, and what consumers expect from brands. You can download the full report here. 

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Wunderman Thompson.

I’m co-Global Director for Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, which is our in-house futures think tank. We produce original trend forecast reports and editorial, focusing on the intersection between consumer behavior and culture. We cover what’s happening, what’s coming next and most importantly why it matters. Our mission is to help our clients understand the future so they can leverage it and start to shape it. Our flagship report is our annual compendium of trends, The Future 100, but over the past decade or more we have also published deep dives into macro themes, cohorts and categories on everything from Gen Z to voice tech to sustainability.


In an Intelligence Report from 2018 you predicted regeneration being the future of sustainability. What inspired you to revisit the topic in 2021?

In 2018 when we first forecasted that regeneration would be the future of sustainability, it was probably only on the radar for experts or activists. Certainly, very few businesses were talking in those terms. But in the past few years we really saw it starting to shift up the agenda, as the urgency of the climate crisis began to hit home. 

The pandemic really laid bare a whole host of fundamental problems with our economic system. Increasingly, it was clear that it no longer works for everyone. Calls for change, a reset, and to build back better started to gather momentum. This time, it wasn’t just activists either. A growing consensus was building, voiced by economists, business leaders, politicians and of course, ordinary citizens. Regeneration even started to enter the business vocabulary, with businesses like Walmart pledging to become ‘regenerative.’  With the change of leadership in the United States, there was a little surge of optimism too. Perhaps the change people were calling for might now be within reach?

To us, it felt like we could be at an inflection point, and that the next decade could see dramatic transformation in the way we live, work and do business, so it was important to revisit our trends.


The Regeneration Rising report touches on racism, poverty, and gender inequality, among other topics. How are these linked to climate change, and why should businesses keep them in mind when addressing environmental issues?

The impacts of climate change are extremely unequal, at both a global and local level. If you are poor, female, and from a minority background then you are more likely to be adversely affected.

Countries in the global South are most acutely exposed to climate change, yet they are least likely to have generated emissions. In cities in the United States, Black people, indigenous communities and people of color are statistically more likely to be exposed to air and water-borne pollution and hazardous waste emissions. Yet the environmental movement rarely centers their voices in the conversation.

Our experts told us that the climate crisis can’t be unpicked from the challenges of inequality, of poverty and racism. You just can’t tackle sustainability while ignoring all of these issues because you will only solve for the privileged. Businesses have an important role to play in solving structural inequities that cause these communities to suffer the brunt of climate change. So as complex as it is, we need to see these issues as interconnected and aim for inclusive and equitable solutions. In fact, our research showed that ordinary people are already aware of the connection: 80% of our panel (in the UK, USA and China) believe that sustainability is inextricably linked to other problems we face, such as poverty, equality and social injustice. More and more, they want to see brands stepping up for disadvantaged communities. 


How has the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, racial justice protests, and an increased focus on economic inequality shifted what consumers expect from brands when it comes to environmental concerns?

The pandemic made people realize that change is possible, and what’s more, it can happen almost overnight if the will is there. We saw unprecedented action from governments of course, but businesses also demonstrated the ability to cooperate and collaborate in new ways, setting competition aside in pursuit of a common goal. 85% of our panel said that “the rapid discovery of vaccines for COVID-19 makes me believe that we can tackle other societal challenges if everyone works together.”  75% said that “businesses responses to COVID-19 have raised my expectation of them in terms of helping to fight some of our world’s biggest problems, like climate change.” 

Most people now expect brands and businesses to help solve our biggest challenges like climate change or social injustice (86%). People are aware that individuals can only do so much, but as one of our most powerful institutions, business can drive change at scale. They want to see businesses do more than just make a profit for their shareholders. More than 8 out of 10 now agree that companies should put people and the planet before profit, and more than half now say they want to know a brand’s point of view on social issues like Black Lives Matter and women’s empowerment before they spend money (rising to 68% among Gen Z).


Which brands are leaders when it comes to regeneration? What can we learn from their approaches?

The modular carpet manufacturer Interface, Inc has long been a regenerative pioneer, exploring a circular business model and even creating carbon-negative carpet tiles. In 2018, it piloted a project called ‘Factory as a Forest’ that aims to transform its industrial facilities and is applying its findings at its US factory to deliver positive ecosystem services such as fresh, clean water, clean air and carbon sequestration. Having achieved carbon neutral status, the company mission is now to ‘reverse climate change.’ Their example illustrates the scale of ambition required to be a leader on regeneration, as well as the need to commit to such projects for the long haul: the company has been on this journey of transformation since the 1990s.

You could say the same of Patagonia, who are ‘in business to save our home planet.’ Concern for the planet is woven throughout their business and is a lens for decision making. It’s not siloed off as a special project.

For sheer scale of ambition, Microsoft is another business leading the way. Its commitment to not only reach net zero by 2030, but to eliminate all emissions since the company’s founding by 2050 is setting the pace. We believe another hallmark of the regenerative economy is collaboration: working with others in the system – even your competitors – to tackle societal goals, and this is evident in the Microsoft-led coalition Transform to Net Zero.


How do you see the advertising industry improving communications around sustainability in the future?

Our research found that 84% of people wish companies would make the impacts of their sustainability efforts clearer, and that they find it hard to tell which are genuine. Clearly there is an opportunity for the ad industry to help bring some clarity and transparency. Often brands can be reluctant to talk about their efforts, especially if their record is imperfect, but it’s rare that a business does not have some work to do. Plus, if brands don’t talk about their sustainability efforts, 69% of our panel say they assume they are not doing anything.

In the future I can see agencies also playing a role in opening up conversations on sustainability with clients, especially those who are perhaps less engaged. As experts in understanding consumers, they can help clients elevate their ambition by articulating the depth of feeling on sustainability issues. To paraphrase Will Skeaping, an Extinction Rebellion activist we interviewed, “if brands drop the ball on this, they are finished as far as Gen Z is concerned.”

But agencies are businesses too of course, so it’s also their responsibility to honestly reflect on their own impact and find ways to drive positive change. Here, change is being driven from the inside by grassroots organizations like Purpose Disruptors, a network of advertising and marketing professionals that wants to reshape the ad industry to tackle climate change. One of their proposals suggests rethinking how we measure effectiveness, taking into account CO2 emissions, which is a really interesting suggestion.  Ultimately, if we’re going to come through this, all businesses need to be targeting a beneficial impact on the planet and people.