How does an agency balance sustainability with their task of spurring consumption? How do agencies make a change without losing market share? Tug’s Hannah Thompson sets out what needs to be done to move the industry forward.

The past year has rightly seen environmental issues take centre stage and greater interest in responsible action, especially since the IPCC declared code red for humanity. Leading forces signing up to Amazon’s Climate Pledge and Ad Net Zero have multiplied fast – including the likes of P&G, HP, Selfridges, and ASOS – while the requirement for large corporations to report on their climate impact has officially made its way into UK law.

Industry players are pulling towards the shared goal of working sustainably and encouraging each other to do better. But while this shift is clearly positive, it begs the question: is anyone truly considering the practicalities for brands, and especially the agencies serving them?

Ultimately, we need to take a more realistic look at what’s going on with sustainability in adland.

How to balance environmental issues with the inherent purpose of ads: to fuel consumption?

Ideals versus reality: consumer considerations

Brands are acutely aware of the need to be not just environmentally conscious, but also eco-active – driven by increasing consumer expectations. Several studies have highlighted growing demand for brands to help tackle climate change and a rising swing towards those with green principles.

In fact, our research shows 67% of UK consumers closely scrutinise retailer practices and 78% say decisions are influenced by clear sustainable values.

At the same time, however, there is often a gap between how consumers aim to use spending power and the reality. While nearly three-quarters (73%) try to weave sustainability into buys, they ultimately make most of their choices based largely on cost; with 80% opting to save money over the planet. This pragmatism isn’t surprising given that many eco-friendly products are priced to reflect their sustainable, and expensive, production. For brands, it creates the risk that going green may put their offerings outside the reach of some consumers; especially as the global cost of living soars and UK shoppers experience the worst financial squeeze in a decade.

Moreover, brands also have their own cost factors to consider. Even as marketing spend hits an eight-year high, economic and global uncertainty could soon see belts tighten again, with sustainability initiatives possibly among the first budget cuts. Amid limited evidence about the performance impact of sustainable messaging – bar a handful of academic studies – the business take on eco-focused marketing is extremely convoluted, to say the least.

A difficult juggling act for agencies

What matters to brands is important to agencies, so all of the above also applies. But added to these complications are the difficulties involved in meeting client requirements and keeping an eye on sustainability. At the higher level, that includes fathoming how to balance environmental issues with the inherent purpose of ads: to fuel consumption.

Brands such as Patagonia, known for championing re-use and provocative anti-Black Friday campaigns, are part of an inspiring yet still small group living by circular economy values, with many of these companies built around sustainability and prepared to take a strong stance. For most firms, advertising needs to carefully blend promotion and planetary good where possible; and that’s before getting into the details of delivery and media planning.

There are no easy switches. See, for instance, long-running discussions about whether digital out-of-home (DOOH) is more eco-friendly than billboards. For those sticking with print, curbing impact means using recycled paper, installing posters with non-toxic glue, and finding ways to avoid waste when campaigns end.

Moving to digital, however, brings different but equally complex challenges. Global greenhouse gases generated by digital technologies are double those of the aviation sector, accounting for 4% of emissions, while the data centres used to power ads guzzle almost 200 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy and are due to generate 14% of CO2e by 2040.

Ad pollution isn’t news to the industry; hence the creation of Ad Net Zero and its recently launched carbon calculator. But while seeking to understand and reduce environmental harms is a step in the right direction, popular methods aren’t entirely positive, particularly offsetting. In Scotland, for example, tree planting has helped counteract emissions, but also increased the elitism of land ownership and has driven social inequality. Where agencies can be confident in using digital to power vast and effective reach, making it sustainable isn’t as simple.

Can agencies find a better way forward?

Ultimately, there is only so far agencies can lead brands down the green path. On the media placement side, there are echoes of previous issues around brand safety. Any agencies that dissuade clients from serving ads on certain sites and platforms will likely find themselves in the position of making blanket judgments about what’s appropriate from the sustainability perspective, as well as potentially limiting engagement scope and free speech.

There are useful lessons we can take from past mistakes. So far, among the best solutions for improving brand safety approaches have been the Global Alliance for Responsible Media’s (GARM) universal harmful content categories. Creating a similar approach could help buyers make more informed decisions about which opportunities will suit their specific sustainability goals, but this will call for collaboration from more than just agencies.

When it comes to driving change through more discerning client selection, capacity is even more restricted. Although they are under increasing pressure to be choosier, few agencies have the ability to dictate business terms. Looking at recent surveys, findings that 60% of agencies hope to filter clients on sustainability criteria in future – versus the 21% already doing so – are what speaks loudest.

Where major players such as Havas have been able to launch their own sustainable marketplaces with strict eco-friendly entry criteria, this route isn’t viable for the majority of agencies, especially the independents. For smaller agencies, introducing sustainability specifications or surcharges would mean they face the very real prospect of losing market share to rivals willing to form partnerships without conditions.

So, while there are multiple challenges that make green progress for agencies harder than most realise, these are not insurmountable. Together, agencies can act as a formidable force in addressing issues and setting sustainable practices as the new standard across the advertising industry, but before they can achieve that, two big changes are needed.

Firstly, all agencies need to work collectively on establishing eco-centric principles as an essential partnership requirement, for everyone.

Secondly, industry leaders who have already built the tools for operating with a purpose-driven approach need to broaden their focus and start thinking about how they can future-proof the wider industry, as well as their own profits and reputations. A key action they can take is sharing their frameworks so that agencies of every size can stay successful and competitive, while putting sustainability first. After all, when the planet wins, we all win.