What role can affiliate marketing play in the era of climate change?

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Anyone familiar with the late, great US standup comedian Bill Hicks will know his acerbic views on those of us working in advertising.

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Such a view is not uncommon as far as the wider public is concerned either. In fact, it was only back in January that the UK’s Advertising Association published a survey revealing the public perception of advertising had plummeted to an all-time low of just 25%.

Making a positive difference to society is not something closely associated with what we all do on a daily basis. Like it or not, that complicated report you’ve wrestled with all week to accurately benchmark your client’s share of the insurance market isn’t going to alleviate global poverty in any discernible way.

Which is why it was interesting to note the prominent presence of the ad industry at the global climate protests. In fact, many of Awin's team members joined the massed ranks for the protests around the world.  Awin had made a positive decision to allow its staff to attend the protests, supporting them in their right to get behind the cause.

In London, down by the riverside in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the historic Houses of Parliament, thousands of protestors listened to speeches decrying the political apathy shown by government, chanted for change, and held aloft banners and placards articulating the full gamut of emotions that the climate crisis has provoked. Hope, satire, despair and fury.

Among those held aloft were several from the cross-industry initiative ‘Create and Strike’, a movement focused on illustrating how the advertising industry can help make a contribution to the wider campaign.

Such an initiative would appear paradoxical to many (Bill Hicks foremost). Here was an industry traditionally in the business of encouraging mass consumption protesting against the crushing impact such consumption has so far had on our planet’s environment.

But advertising and marketing are ultimately amoral entities. They’re tools for achieving specific actions, chiefly the sale of goods and products to consumers currently.

With a change in priorities though, those same tools can be a profoundly effective means of achieving positive societal improvements. And those priorities are beginning to change as consumer habits start to reflect a burgeoning awareness of how the things they buy impact the environment.

In fact, with governments and policymakers still dragging their feet in implementing green laws and genuinely constructive regulation, many individuals are realizing they hold more power to enact actual change via their wallets rather than via the ballot box.

What’s great about the affiliate channel is how you can see the industry’s entrepreneurial spirit respond to this evolving consumer appetite. It’s apparent in the affiliates that arrive and provide solutions for it.

Consider reGAIN, an award-winning UK app that prevents unwanted clothing going to landfills by offering users a discount code in exchange for those same clothes. reGAIN recycles the unwanted item and now works with a host of prominent retailers who are keen to support and be associated with the proposition.

Or Ethical Fashion Guide, a site dedicated to gathering in one space all of the global fashion brands that sell ethically-manufactured fashion goods to make it easier to shop with a conscience.

Or Shop Green, a retailer directory site that uses the commission it earns from sales to fund the planting of trees around the world, offsetting carbon emissions.

And that’s not to forget the increasing number of ethical brands that are entering the channel, using affiliates as a means of connecting with the growing band of conscious consumers online.

Brands like Hand in Hand in the US, a personal care brand that donates a bar of soap and one month of clean water to a child in need for every product purchased.  

Or Natura Brasil, a carbon neutral Brazilian beauty product retailer that is the first publicly-traded B Corp and a vocal advocate for environmental sustainability.

Or, away from the beauty sector, the Italian clean energy provider Alperia, using affiliates to promote its renewable energy supply to local customers.

Ultimately, if actions are what’s required to achieve the kind of dramatic changes that experts argue we need, then affiliate marketing can perhaps be an influential lever in this overall drive.

Its strength as an ad model is premised upon its anchoring in the real world. The affiliate channel prides itself on delivering real actions from consumers. Historically that has always been in the form of validated sales or leads. Publishers are awarded by their advertiser partners for delivering these tangible results.Therefore it makes logical sense that affiliates can similarly drive real world environmental changes if the reward mechanisms are similarly aligned.

An affiliate program configured to reward higher commissions for more environmentally-friendly products, or one that rewards publishers for reducing customer return rates thereby reducing the environmental impact of further delivery and packaging costs, can bring about these kinds of change.

But an expectation that advertisers change their incentive models overnight is unlikely, unrealistic and unfair. More intervention is needed by governments to ensure that environmental issues are made a priority for all businesses, sitting alongside profitability as a desired outcome.

Allied to the increasing consumer demand for ethical values from the businesses they buy from, affiliate marketing (and advertising in general) can fulfil a pivotal role in changing the direction of climate change.

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