Kimberlee Wells, Sustain by TBWA: "Sustainability needs to start with real action not ads."

Agencies have a responsibility to educate themselves on working more sustainably and working with clients to understand their intent

by India Fizer , AdForum

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South Melbourne, Australia
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Kimberlee Wells
Global Practice Lead Sustain by TBWA

Kimberlee Wells, Global Practice Lead at Sustain by TBWA and CEO at TBWA\Melbourne, speaks on using education and creativity to bring about impactful change.


How are you advising clients on sustainable messaging and product development? 

Sustain by TBWA operates almost exclusively at a strategic and advisory level. We work in three key areas of Advisory, Activation and Acceleration creating a safe but cynical space for brands to pressure test their sustainability strategies and claims amongst various stakeholder groups before releasing them to the public.

We’ve recently advised clients on sustainable messaging and product development, including partnering with one the world’s largest FMCG companies to map its portfolio of brands against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This framework has been used to drive new product innovations. 

While within the aviation industry, we’re working with a biofuel company to stress test its environmental communication claims against different stakeholder groups including civil society, activists, progressive media and government. This helps ensure they are adhering to local laws and policies in different markets, so there are no instances of unintentional greenwashing. 

Have you implemented any sustainability initiatives in your own workflow?  If so, can you tell us what steps other agencies can take to lead by example and adopt sustainable practices within their own operations?

Yes! We’re committed to working more sustainably. For example, we’re reducing the carbon impact of the development, production and running of advertising campaigns, in addition to limiting travel and transportation in delivery of core Services by leveraging TBWA’s national production hubs. 

Since 2021, TBWA has partnered with Trace, an external consultant to help measure, reduce and offset Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. This has included assessing energy use and transitioning to 100% Green power plans, implementing appropriate waste management strategies, improving the use of recyclable materials, limiting agency travel (including employee commuting) and evaluating suppliers’ own sustainability programmes. Unavoidable emissions are offset with carbon credits to ensure the agency continues to operate at net carbon levels. 

We’re also a supporter of Ad Net Zero (the advertising industry’s drive to reduce the carbon impact of developing, producing and running advertising campaigns). Ad Net Zero is locally activated by our internal production offering through the AdGreen Carbon Calculator. This tool allows us to measure and report on the carbon footprint of motion, stills and audio projects, assessing the environmental impact of our production activities and identifying where practical changes can be made to reduce a project’s carbon output. 

TBWA also works to three sustainability principles (restrict, reuse, report) across all production jobs and includes on-set sustainability expectations on all call sheets. And we continue to explore the opportunities and limitations of Virtual Production and any production opportunities presented by advancements in AI technology on a case-by-case basis. 

These are just a few examples of how we’re working more sustainably.


In what ways can agencies help promote sustainable practices and drive meaningful change towards environmental protection?

First and foremost, we need to acknowledge we are all on a learning journey – agencies, consumers, brands and even governments are new to addressing the challenges of sustainability. Problems of this magnitude are seldom solved alone so it is imperative we keep talking and keep pushing each other to get it right. 

A growing fear of being called out for green washing is giving rise to a term coined by Sustain by TBWA’s Chief Creative Officer, Paul Reardon, called ‘Perfection Paralysis’. This refers to inertia caused by fear of backlash and shareholder pushback, which ultimately leads to ‘Green Hushing’. 

We need to encourage brands to push hard on proof and be proud of the measures they are taking [irrespective of how big or little] as they transition into more sustainable endeavors. Consumers will be forgiving of brands who are clear about where they are at and what they are heading towards but if all goes silent, what then?

For agencies, it begins with educating ourselves on the evolving legislation and working with clients to understand their own ambitions within this space. We must challenge the briefs, encourage curiosity and apply our creativity in different ways that bring about impactful change. The time for awareness driving initiatives that admire the problem of sustainability but offer little solution for action has well and truly passed.

What is your POV on advertising’s responsibility to take action in shifting consumer preferences towards eco-conscious practices, brands, and products?

Advertising has and always will have a huge role to play in shaping people’s attitudes and behaviours. Education is particularly important in this space given the complexity of the challenge. We have a job to do to walk back from vague statements, meaningless claims and sustainability tropes in advertising.

Whilst it’s pleasing to see many brands embrace sustainability in their messaging, the executional approach in advertising has quickly become at best conventional and at worst gimmicky. Sustainability needs to start with real action not ads.