Our warming Earth has had one whole trip around the sun since delegates flew into Glasgow to attend COP26, the United Nations’ annual climate conference, with the sole aim of preventing climate change.
It felt like a milestone moment and, post COP, momentum has indeed grown within the advertising industry, as leaders figure out how to enact transformative change.
For all the best intentions and climate commitments, Purpose Disruptors, a network of climate activist advertising insiders, reports that the ad industry has not made a dent in its "advertised emissions". And that situation looks set to worsen in 2022.
With world leaders set to descend on COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, an Egyptian resort town overlooking the Red Sea, the UN reports climate impacts have worsened and carbon emissions have risen to record levels, hitting vulnerable communities the hardest.
As the greatest threat to human health looms, Campaign asks industry experts whether things are moving fast enough in adland and, if not, what more could be done to prevent climate change.
Do climate commitments go far enough?
“In 2021, the advertising industry is still contributing 28% to people’s carbon emissions through driving increased consumption,” Lisa Merrick-Lawless, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors, says. She calculates "advertised emissions" as the greenhouse (GHC) emissions that result from the uplift in sales generated by advertising.
Given it last reported that 2019 figures show the UK advertising industry was responsible for more than 186 million tonnes of CO2e, nothing has improved. “Alarmingly, that figure is set to rise in 2022, detailed in our full report due to launch in November,” Merrick-Lawless says.
It’s reflective of the state of things, Iris global chief strategy officer and climate advocate Ben Essen muses, that Greta Thunberg recently declared: “We've been greenwashed out of our senses.”
“In other words, advertisers have got very good at talking about our client’s Net Zero ambitions,” Essen argues. “But talk and pledges aren’t what adland needs.
“Greta went on to channel her inner strategist, declaring that ‘if your objective truly is to act on the climate crisis, then surely your first step would be to gather accurate figures for our actual emissions to get a complete overview of the problem, and from there start looking at real solutions.
“‘That would also give you a rough idea of the changes needed, the scale of them and how quickly they need to be put in place. This, however, has not been done–or even suggested–by any leader.'”
While it’s good news that Purpose Disruptors is calculating adland’s emissions, Essen says: “The bad news is that none of the most influential agency leaders has yet been prepared to take up the mantel on this–for fear of alienating fossil fuel clients or looking like hypocrites.”
John Brown, co-founder of Don’t Cry Wolf, agrees that things aren’t moving fast enough, and says the reason is cash (and not the lack of it). “The whole creative industry is rewarded on the simple metric of ‘did you sell more shit to more people',” he says.
“So long as the efficacy of creativity is determined by the amount of profit it generates, things won’t change at pace.”
He insists the advertising industry has to get smarter with the way it measures. “So at the very least, we can make more informed decisions about the campaigns we create," he says. "By all means, evaluate a campaign on incoming revenue, but don’t let that be your only evaluation criteria.”
Brown adds it’s important to question what impact looks like. Ask yourself, it is positively solving a societal challenge? “Hell, is it worth doing or is there a less carbon-intensive way of getting the desired goal? We can accelerate change by changing the way we measure success.”
And, when it comes to climate commitments, while a lot of agencies have chosen 2030 or 2035 as targets for climate commitments, Chris Norman, chief executive and founder of Good Agency, says it’s important to hold progress to account. “Rather than accept ‘they are on a journey’, it would be better to see updates on progress,” he explains.
He suggests holding regular forums where people can ask how things are going and make suggestions: “Not as a threat, but in a way of supporting. There needs to be a more inclusive way of reporting, in a transparent way.”
Alienating fossil fuel clients
Indeed, while agencies work to make their own operations sustainable, some remain committed to working for fossil fuel clients.
In recent months, patience has run out among climate advocates, with agencies and their high-carbon clients coming increasingly under fire, more painfully from the inside, with employees pressurising bosses.
In August, after Greenpeace activists protested at Cannes Lions, mocking the ad industry for working with fossil fuel energy companies, creatives handed out a satirical pamphlet called "The Brief Sabotage Handbook", filled with tips and tricks on sabotaging briefs for fossil fuel clients, outside WPP offices.
Then, Unit9 had its Shell shoot disrupted by Fossil Fuel London protestors, who accused them of “peak greenwashing”.
"If the ad industry wants to be part of the climate solution, agencies need to stop working for the fossil fuel industry, which is responsible for over three-quarters of global carbon pollution,” Duncan Meisel, activist group Clean Creative’s executive director, insists.
In a statement to Campaign, WPP said: “In April 2021 we announced our commitment to reach net zero in our operations by 2025 and our entire supply chain by 2030.
"WPP is a founding member of Ad Net Zero and is still the only company to include emissions associated with the media we place on behalf of clients in our target, which accounts for more than half of our carbon footprint.”
The company added that the supply chain accounts for 98% of its total carbon footprint, of which media buying equals more than half of its emissions and production 14%.
In September, Clean Creatives published the "F-list", which named and shamed 90 ad and PR agencies for working with fossil fuel corporations, namely WPP, for its work with BP in Ogilvy, Shell at Wunderman Thompson and ExxonMobil in both Hill & Knowlton and Burson Cohn and Wolfe.
“In the year since COP26, agencies have begun to apply more scrutiny towards major polluters, but hundreds still work with the most polluting companies on Earth," Meisel claims.
“The latest IPCC report named advertising and PR work for fossil fuels as a major barrier to ending the climate emergency, and we have yet to see the ad industry respond in the meaningful way that is needed."
Questioned whether it’s better to work with fossil fuel companies than against them, Meisel says there’s no evidence that such an approach works, because it comes down to the integrity of oil companies, who claim they want to do better.
He points to a recent US congressional investigation into climate disinformation, which revealed more than 200 pages of in-house messages between lobbyists and Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil employees, where personnel question their own environmental commitments and joke about climate collapse, as an example.
Brown agrees with Meisel. He says that, while agencies aren’t huge carbon emitters, they have to consider the work they do, who they do it for and how it’s measured.
“Sitting back and marvelling at your plastic-free workspace while signing contacts with seriously damaging companies or, indeed, countries, to help with their reputation or growth strategy is like sticking feathers up your arse and claiming you’re a chicken,” he declares.
Architects of desire
At COP26, UK government chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance claimed mass behaviour change will be key to tackling climate change.
“We are literally the architects of desire, we can play a key role in making this transition smooth, desirable, and quick,” Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network and insights director at Media Bounty, says.
“We need to change the products we buy (and don’t buy), our lifestyles, and address the imbalance between those who have caused this problem, and those suffering the consequences.”
On a brighter note, Merrick-Lawless says a more sustainable future is coming into view. “A year on from its launch, Purpose Disruptors’ 'Good life 2030' initiative continues to engage hundreds of industry leaders and creatives in exploring alternative visions of a good life, both for citizens and for the industry – within an ever-shrinking deadline,” she insists.
“The project is a demonstration of what’s possible if our industry dares to imagine differently. And dare to imagine we must,” she says, quoting Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
“We have less than 10 years to stop irreversible climate change that could make our lives and those of our children, extremely unpleasant,” Kingaby says. “That’s not hyperbole, that’s according to scientists.”
As COP27 beckons, the advertising industry is in better shape than a year prior. “This has been a year of big awareness and capability building, accelerated by new expectations from clients, regulators and even young talent,” Merrick-Lawless says.
“And we’ve seen positive signals at an organisational level. Following COP26, there has been a surge of agencies signing up for Purpose Disruptor’s 'Change the Brief Alliance' sustainability training.”
Change often has a long build-up, she warns. “What we’re seeing at this moment is the groundwork, the foundations are being laid.
“We now must get the system moving at the pace needed, every agency needs to set new visions, measure it’s fully impact and educate its people. Now. Not in 2029”