Sustainability was a key theme at this year’s Cannes Lions festival – both planned and unplanned. Whether you agree or disagree on tactics, the volume of conversation and questions being asked around the role of the industry in the climate crisis can only be a positive.

While the planned programme at Cannes looked at applying narrow creative values to the vast topic of sustainability, Greenpeace brought some much-needed challenge in demanding greater responsibility from the creative industry as a whole regarding its role in the climate crisis. Greenpeace’s intervention at the Palais (pictured) was to call for a halt to advertising and marketing for fossil fuel companies, but the more important debate that has followed has been around taking responsibility for advertised emissions.

Between a creative festival that hasn’t evolved its creativity principles much since it first launched in 1954 and a very targeted NGO intervention, it seems to me that we’re missing the point somewhat. This disconnect speaks volumes to the level of realignment that needs to happen when it comes to creativity, sustainability performance and planetary and societal outcomes.

Rethinking how we reward creativity

Interestingly, a big sustainability winner at Cannes was AB InBev for its Michelob Ultra ‘Pure Gold’ campaign, which focused on the supply chain. It’s a first – and highlights some interesting points.

When it comes to sustainability and making a genuinely positive impact, marketeers and brand owners need to take a much broader view of their remit and what they need to know about a business. The AB InBev win demonstrated that supply chain marketing is firmly part of brand building and reputation. In the same way that we are looking downstream, we also need actors across the creative industries to be looking upstream, to the impact of consumer life and the life of products.

We also need to rethink how we reward creativity. Creative success cannot be attributed to one-off tactics (however creatively well-executed) and should only be regarded as successful if they drive long-term, positive impact and behaviour change. This year, we heard comments from PR Lions judges themselves concerned that some of the entries seemed more like one-time stunts rather than being deeply embedded in business strategy. It is therefore unsurprising that the industry is being held to account, and why Cannes Lions has drawn so much attention regarding climate and sustainability issues.

Creativity is meaningless without credibility

The creative industry has a huge role to play in our transition towards a sustainable future. Brands and businesses cannot make the necessary changes alone. They need to engage the masses and inspire people to join their cause, in order to deliver change at the scale and pace they need. Creativity is an essential tool for businesses looking to enable real change and transformation from their sustainability strategy and commitments.

But creativity cannot play alone – it must always work hand-in-hand with credibility. Having a robust sustainability strategy and aligned commitments gives brands the licence to operate. Communicating progress towards those commitments in an honest, effective way gives them the licence to speak.

When done well, and right, sustainability performance and communications can be a virtuous circle but, to date, performance and communications hasn’t always been consistent, trustworthy or balanced. We have tools for performance measurement. We have tools to assess impact of communications. It’s now time to start measuring the relationship between the two, because that’s where true progress can be realised and rewarded.

The rise of greywashing

For now the greenwashing challenge is front of creative minds – and rightly so. And with the introduction of the Green Claims Code to hold those businesses who are making misleading or unsubstantiated ‘green’ claims to account, this lens will only become sharper. My fear is that business will head too far in the opposite direction.

While the sustainability world has focused much of its efforts on combatting the dangers of greenwashing – the outcome of creativity without the necessary credibility to back it up – at the opposite end of the spectrum a new trap has emerged: that of technically correct and potentially powerful sustainable strategies that lack the creativity needed to active them. It’s a concept we’ve named ‘greywash’; an unfortunate bi-product of credibility without creativity.

Greywash is the creative void that holds back progress and business transformation. It is present in those dry sustainability strategies that aren’t creative, don’t challenge, don’t inspire and so fail to drive engagement or create meaningful change. Solid strategic thinking remains stuck in dull PowerPoint decks and spreadsheets and isn’t translated into something that can live in the real world. It’s where consultancy leads and creativity is, at best, an afterthought.

These businesses have the right to speak but fail to find their voice. This is where we see stats emerging on the significant ‘paralysis of action’ – having a sustainability strategy but not knowing how to activate it within your business and through brands to consumers. As such, they fail to engage audiences, empower decision-making and create the rallying cry needed to drive action and change behaviour in employees, customers and business partners. This prevents them from achieving that potential, improving their reputation and increasing revenues.

No greenwash. No greywash. Just progress

Greenwashing has always fuelled cynicism about companies and their ambitious targets for sustainability. And this is not just about making unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims about an organisation’s products or operations, but also simply following the pack and making the wrong claims altogether.

When it comes to setting sustainability commitments, brands often find themselves looking to their peers and seeking safety in the crowd. It’s created a ‘sea of same’, in which companies launch the same self-congratulatory initiatives as everyone else. These messages struggle to cut through, making middle-of-the-road a very expensive place to be.

To move out of generic greenwash, businesses need to focus on the specific commitments they need to make in order to deliver genuine change, not just following what everyone else does. Businesses need to stand out and challenge the status quo by focusing on what really matters to them and how they can impact the world.

Greenwashing (creativity without credibility) and greywashing (credibility without creativity) are two opposing barriers to progress. Credibility and creativity must be engaged in unison. Only then can powerful strategies emerge and their potential to shape minds, transform business, build reputation and create progress can be realised.

Sustainability commitments have become the new corporate comms currency. They are the new brand promises upon which reputations are built. As such, they need to be all the things you would expect assets of intrinsic value to be – honest, accessible, meaningful, branded, creative and inspiring.

These are the things I believe can and should win the next generation of creative effectiveness awards.