The UK advertising industry’s climate impact is getting worse and radical change is needed. This is the top-line finding of the new report ‘Advertised Emissions Temperate Check 2022’, launched at COP27. Here, lead author and Co-founder of Purpose Disruptors, Jonathan Wise, shares an update.
If the advertising industry were to take full responsibility for its climate impact, what would it do?
It would measure and reduce its Advertised Emissions – the greenhouse gas emissions that result from the increase in sales generated by advertising. Advertising drives consumption and consumption drives carbon emissions.
Why? Well, our Advertised Emissions report, written with the brilliant econometrics agency Magic Numbers, calculated just how chunky the UK advertising industry’s Advertised Emissions are. In 2022 they were equivalent to running 56 coal-fired power plants for a year.
That is a big number and if we want to help humanity ‘divert off the highway to hell’ as the UN Secretary General puts it, we, as the industry, need to take responsibility for it. We need to reduce it by 50% by 2030 to align with what the scientists say is needed.
Not only does the report share the latest numbers, it offers practical solutions, at a company and industry level, of how to get Advertised Emissions down. It also suggests radical, hopeful ideas of how the industry can use its talents to shape an alternative society.
Here are our key findings:
1. The UK advertising industry’s climate impact is getting worse.
This is a sobering headline. We updated the 2019 numbers from our original report, launched at COP26 in Glasgow. The findings were unexpected, Advertised Emissions rose 11% from 2019 to 2022; from 186 million tonnes of CO2e to 208 million tonnes of CO2e:
This means the UK advertising industry now influences 32% of the carbon footprint of every citizen in the UK.
Advertising spend and Advertised Emissions appear to correlate. The more we spend, the more goods are sold, and the more impact that has on climate. In 2019, ad spend dropped by 20% during the tough times of the pandemic, which resulted in a 22% drop in Advertised Emissions, nearly like for like.
As we came out of the pandemic, ad spend rebounded. Advertised Emissions also increased.
Reducing total ad spend is a way to combat the industry's emissions, but there is another avenue which would also help us get on track.
2. Reducing spend in carbon-intensive categories
Advertising carbon-intensive categories such as flying, red meat, and cars have a disproportionate impact in driving up Advertised Emissions. For example, cars, because of their full life cycle (think not just the materials to build each vehicle, but also the petrol, diesel or electricity needed to run it over its lifetime) contributed to a whopping third (33%) of overall Advertised Emissions in 2022, yet only represent 6% of total ad spend.
It will take strong leadership and decisive action to reduce Advertised Emissions by 50% by 2030, and get ourselves onto the “what’s now required” line (on the chart). Thinking about what we do and don’t advertise is an obvious place to start.
3. Leading companies are acting
The good news is the industry is responding. We’ve convened a working group of leading brands, media owners and agencies: adam&eveDDB, Channel 4, Essence, Elvis, Global, The Guardian, Havas Group, Iris, JCDecaux, M&C Saatchi, McCann Worldgroup, Mediacom, NatWest, Oliver, Quorn along with the Advertising Association, magic numbers and Race to Zero.
The goal is to co-create a tool that organisations within our industry can use to measure and reduce their Advertised Emissions.
We've got another handy tool in the making. Our Advertiser Carbon Index (ACI) (figure 2). This responds to a question many agencies and media platforms, not just in our working group, are asking:
Given we are in a climate emergency, who should we be working with?
We've produced a set of 9 critical questions to assess an advertiser’s performance. The questions probe current plans and actions and are designed to help us tease out their commitments to reducing their consumption-related emissions. Helpfully, each organisation will receive a score to quickly see its climate impact.
Figure 2: Questions for the Advertised Carbon Index (ACI)
Completing this for the top 100 UK advertisers by spend will allow us to rank advertisers on the Index. This pioneering work will be published later this year and will help agencies and media owners be more choiceful about who they work with, ensuring they are working with organisations who are as committed as they are in making a climate transition.
The energy and variety of the companies in the Working Group demonstrate pan-industry desire for organisations to take full responsibility for their climate impact.
4. The industry needs to act as one
The leading organisations in the Working Group only represent part of the industry, yet, a whole industry response is necessary. The steep reduction in Advertised Emissions that is required by 2030 mirrors the latest recommendations from the UK’s House of Lords. Their October 2022 report stated 32% of the UK’s legally required emissions reductions, by 2035, need to come from consumer behaviour change.
Shaping consumer behaviour is our bread and butter, but the industry is competitive. If one agency or media owner chose not to work with a carbon-intensive brand that move would likely be undermined by another snapping up the work. Accepting this current truth offers the opportunity for radical leadership:
What if the industry came together and actively encouraged the government to ban advertising for carbon-intensive categories (like cars, flying and red meat)?
This is the level of bold industry-wide leadership that is needed to deliver the level of societal change that is required. Such an act of unexpected responsibility from the UK industry would:
- Be a powerful signal to a growing number of clients who are fully committed to net zero emissions
- Demonstrate UK climate leadership on the global stage
- Increase trust in advertising in society
- Enable the industry to better compete in the war for talent
5. We can diversify away from unsustainable consumption
Understanding the likely shortfall in revenue this would cause, the report offers a way to achieve growth through diversification. Based on an unlikely example from BP (see below), we invite brands, agencies and media owners to consider how they might decouple their skills from the current outcome (driving unsustainable consumption). Can they use their creativity to generate a new business model that enables them to use their skills in service of an alternative outcome: one that leads to a thriving sustainable business and future for all?
The concept of Advertised Emissions offers the advertising industry the opportunity to take full responsibility for its climate impact. It is a concept that is gaining momentum within the industry and the world’s leading climate bodies. It’s a concept which is unavoidable for any organisation looking to respond fully and honestly to the evolving climate emergency. As a Strategy Director at a leading advertising agency said “it’s inevitable”.
To download the full report visit: https://www.purposedisruptors.org/advertised-emissions.