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Marketing and Comms
Lights, Camera, Climate Action? Advertisers Being Called Upon to Rein in Their Carbon Footprint

Accurately measuring, tracking, comparing and reporting impacts for the process of producing, filming, displaying and running ads will be crucial for the industry to play its part in solving one of the big challenges of our time.

Adweek’s recent attempt at some back-of-the-envelope calculations to work out the carbon footprint of an average advertisement run during the Super Bowl (13,860 metric tons of CO2 are generated by all Super Bowl digital-ad-related impressions, in case you’re wondering) points to a growing interest within the sector to finally get a grip on sustainability.

Of course, brands and their ad agencies have had to navigate finding the right balance between selling their purpose, responsibility and climate activities; and not overstating their claims to be single-handedly solving the world’s problems. In France — where fossil-fuel producers are banned from advertising altogether — brands connected to high-carbon industries, such as aviation, must now carry tobacco-style warnings to indicate their contribution to the climate crisis. Carmakers have to include a disclaimer stating that walking or cycling are better for the environment than driving a vehicle. In the consumer goods market, brands must include evidence to back up any ‘green’ claims made in their advertising or face hefty fines.

But it is in addressing the actual impact of the creative process — producing, filming, displaying and running adverts — that the industry is beginning to get serious. With a huge carbon footprint, not helped by a complex digital ad supply chain and the sheer volume of transactions, it’s no mean feat. As Brian O’Kelley, CEO of carbon impact data platform Scope3, told Sustainable Brands® (SB), “Advertising may seem like an unlikely source of environmental issues. But advertising powers the internet and ads fund and fuel the global economy; it follows that advertising has a substantial impact on the environment.”

Since the turn of the year, a number of platforms — including Vox Media and Yahoo — have made moves to help advertisers track and record the GHGs associated with their campaigns by using tech such as Scope3’s. Meanwhile, media agency Assembly launched what it called its Clean Media Lab — essentially a series of tools to help its clients do carbon-footprint audits, applying an emissions metric to track their omnichannel campaign impacts.

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Of course, the big industry response came in the form of Ad Net Zero, a collaboration between many of the big agencies — including WPP, Dentsu, Havas and Meta — designed to guide the ad industry towards net zero. That means reducing the emissions associated with developing, producing and running advertising to zero by following a five-step plan.

Then, more recently, the Cannes Lions Awards — held every year to recognise and reward the very best in advertising — changed their application criteria for entries. Now, each submission invites entrants to include information on the carbon footprint and sustainability impact of the creative project being put forward. Entrants are being asked to look at Ad Net Zero’s action plan when making a submission and show how they have addressed operational carbon emissions, curbed emissions from advertising production, and harnessed advertising’s power to encourage consumer behavior change.

The criteria also ask for details about how diversity, equity and inclusion have been considered in the creative process, and how that might have driven commercial success.

Cannes Lions’ update to the submission process has been widely welcomed, with some saying it reflects the organization’s status as an “agent of change.” Marketing activist and expert Thomas Kolster told SB said he was happy with the development, acknowledging that the industry is still trying to find a foothold in sustainability. “If something like this was implemented earlier, it probably would have been too early in terms of the maturity of the sector,” he said.

However, answering the sustainability-related questions is not compulsory at this stage. Cannes Lions CEO Simon Cook said it would have been unfair to “spring it on people” and that this year is all about simply trying to get a base — “because at the moment, we just don’t have any visibility.”

The other major question the development raises is how judges might be able to assess and compare submissions based on the responses given. As with any carbon-reduction process across any sector, the absence of a clearly defined standard makes it tough to make comparisons between different projects and agencies, and really tough to understand what ‘good’ actually looks like. The likes of Scope3 and the Ad Net Zero initiative will help, of course. O’Kelley’s five-step plan to create global sustainability standards for the media and advertising industry has gained serious traction. Tracking, measuring and reporting carbon emissions in an increasingly granular way — which is absolutely necessary in complex supply chains — will limit the ad sector’s contribution to global warming.

But for others, like Kolster, engaging the creative community in tackling sustainability should go way beyond carbon — and the real winners will be the brands that help others take sustainability seriously, rather than talk about their own progress. “I’m a much bigger believer in brands that help all of us on our journey rather than go out and do virtue signalling,” he says. “That’s not going to help brands win hearts and minds in the long term.”

As we head into awards season, the virtue signalling will no doubt attempt to drown out actual progress — especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the creative industry. This year’s Super Bowl ads showed plenty of room for improvement on sustainability storytelling too, as Kolster writes in his review for SB. Finding a way to measure, track, compare and report performance — on everything from inclusion to climate action — will be crucial if the ad industry is to play its part in solving the big challenges of our time. Watch this space.