We all have a collective responsibility to make progress on sustainability

To mark Earth Day 2024, Matt Bourn and Sebastian Munden, authors of a book on the importance of sustainable advertising, warn that this is no time to stand still.

We all have a collective responsibility to make progress on sustainability

Many in the advertising sector and beyond, who want to see the ad industry make rapid progress towards supporting a sustainable future this year, are asking why the topic is not so apparent on the industry’s public agenda.

We attended multiple Year Ahead industry events at the start of 2024 where sustainability was not mentioned much. And Matt worked with his comms colleagues at the Advertising Association to use AI and review 25 different trends and predictions articles from across our industry media.

The top five themes can be broadly summarised as follows:

1. Responsible development and application of AI. Ensuring ethical use of AI to address societal challenges and prevent misuse or negative impacts.

2. Regaining public trust and combatting misinformation. Quality, human-centric storytelling to combat fake news and misinformation.

3. Embracing innovation and change. Investing in research and development to find solutions to critical challenges.

4. Bridging societal divides and fostering unity. Promoting civil discourse, collaboration and understanding across social, political, and cultural boundaries.

5. Attracting and retaining top talent. This involves increasing salaries, benefits and offering growth opportunities to drive innovation and maintain competitiveness.

These five themes are a bit AI-speak, but note the absence of climate change or sustainability. It could be argued that they sit within point three about solutions to critical challenges, but that’s a stretch.

Our conclusion? There is a real challenge to ensure climate action remains central to the industry's discussions and not to get distracted.

This is no time to stand still

Decarbonising our industry and using its superpowers to promote a more sustainable economy, decoupling value creation from the materials consumed takes leadership consistency and needs to be kept under constant review.

By the way, we’re not alone as an industry with this challenge. At one particular Year Ahead gathering, the BBC economics editor, Faisal Islam, reflected on the fact that sustainability and climate change were barely mentioned at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January.

He questioned whether this was because many companies now view sustainability as something “baked in” or because there were simply more pressing or interesting things to be discussed. He suspected the latter, as do we.

However, the way the agenda is being shaped isn’t in line with the actual concerns that companies are asking us to treat as a priority.

Sustainability ranks in the top three issues for Advertising Association members, following a review in late summer with all our Council leads.

It sits alongside trust and inclusion, all of which help ensure our industry makes the most responsible contribution to the UK's economic and social development.

It is critical to talent attraction and retention, and it is important enough to client companies to be spelled out in their procurement contracts.

For the first time, many large companies will disclose their carbon footprint and that of their supply chains, which can include advertising and media.

So, this is no time to stand still.

What can each of us do?

First, if you are organising events for our industry, make sure the topic is squarely on the agenda and look for inspiration in terms of speakers and topics from those making the most rapid progress.

There are some amazing, inspirational things happening out there that people will enjoy learning about. We came across many during the research for our book, Sustainable Advertising.

If you’re working in an advertising or marketing role across the many different types of organisations in our industry, take the next step to create a positive impact, and don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. While you’re doing that, discuss the manifesto in Chapter 1 of our book with your colleagues. Or if you are ready for it, put the checklist in Chapter 16 into action.

If you’re running awards, it’s time to think hard and look closely at what you’re asking of entrants and what you’re awarding as excellent.

We are living in a time of climate change—does the work you are recognising as excellent make the problem bigger or smaller? The best awards provide creative inspiration for the next wave of work—use your awards to foster an industry that produces work that is increasingly focused on helping to build a sustainable future.

If you’re a journalist at an industry publication, there’s no harm in asking a sustainability question or two in every interview you have with an industry leader. Where possible, highlight areas of progress and things people should learn from, not just where things are failing. However, helping uncover the blocks to progress is always useful. Most importantly, though, make sure sustainability gets airtime in your coverage.

If you work at a trade body, keep that sustainability working group thriving. Use resources offered by the likes of Ad Net Zero, Planet Mark, Green Element and Purpose Disruptors. Sustainability media, including Business Green and Edie, keep us in touch with the wider conversation, too. If you’re a member of a trade body and you don’t see this happening, ask for an update.

If you’re a communications professional like Matt, keep pushing for the evidence around progress. Join initiatives like Ad Net Zero to hear from others wrestling with similar challenges.

Listen to the voices that challenge our industry, from within and from other industries, and make sure your work is helping to make positive progress.

We all have a collective responsibility to ensure sustainability (and the progress we are making) stays high on our industry’s agenda. It must be there for the right reasons, not just appearing for the wrong ones.

Matt Bourn is director of communications for the Advertising Association. Sebastian Munden is chair of Ad Net Zero and chair of the Campaign Ad Net Zero Awards 2024. They are the co-authors of Sustainable Advertising: How Advertising Can Support a Better Future, which is out now and published by Kogan Page.


Campaign UK

Related Articles

Just Published

14 hours ago

2024 Cannes Contenders: Dentsu creatives place ...

Dentsu's creative chiefs in Taiwan and Indonesia pick the APAC campaigns that stand a good chance of winning a Lion.

16 hours ago

Creative Minds: Once a security guard for a Michael ...

RGA's Masaya Nakade has also worked as an athlete, chef, traveller, writer, artist, filmmaker, and designer before becoming a creative.

18 hours ago

Cannes Contenders: Wolf BKK predicts which ...

Wolf BKK's Torsak Chuenprapar handpicks the campaigns that could win a Lion next week at Cannes.

19 hours ago

Grey changes Asia Pacific leadership, appoints ...

After 33 years with Grey, global COO and international president Nirvik Singh is leaving the business. Grey also has appointed Masahiko Okazaki as its new CEO in Japan, replacing Yukiko Ochiai.