Christmas is a time of excess; when gobs are stuffed till buckles pop, overdrafts extend as presents get ticked off, and countless bottles of plonk are sunk. Until it’s all over for another year.
All good things come at a price, however. With people realising that gluttonous Christmas celebrations have a detrimental effect on the planet, a number of agencies have been prompted to make their festivities more eco-friendly this year.
Spurred on by Extinction Rebellion’s urges to the industry to use its power of persuasion to tackle the global climate and ecological emergency, in September ad land took an environmental stance at the Climate Strike.
Although there is room for improvement, the industry has come a long way this year. “2019 has been a really strong year for industry-wide awareness and action on sustainability and climate change,” said Amy Bradshaw, head of client partnership, VaynerMedia London. “We’ve never had more evidence that it’s win-win for businesses."
Ben Essen, chief strategy officer at Iris added: “Internal agency initiatives are important, but what matters most is what we do together, and what we do for our clients."
So what are agencies doing this Christmas to reduce the inevitable environmental impact of excess?
The Christmas party - the time when the office lets its hair down and gets royally into the festive spirit.
This year, Engine has decided to wave the Christmas party all together in favour of doing something that reduces waste, gives back to the community and brings people together.
Ditching the do, Engine is instead partnering with the food waste charity FoodCycle - a not-for-profit organisation that is on a mission to nourish communities using surplus food.
Elsewhere, The Good Agency has chosen a sustainable private members club - the Arboretum - for its client party, where it will offset the carbon footprint of the event. Aptly chosen, the theme is ‘Enchanted Forest’ and so all guests will take plants home with them.
VaynerMedia London is opting to host just one Christmas party, instead of three separate dos for clients, partners and its staff. It says this reflects on its inclusive team ethos, while also reducing consumption.
For the party season, Mindshare staff have ditched fast fashion and buying new party clothes in favour of running a party swap shop. Robert McFaul - client director at Mindshare, said the idea of swapping unwanted party clothes was “borne out of this year's Mindshare day when the global network spent the day connecting with the scale and urgency of the climate crisis and our role in addressing it.”
One trend agencies are jumping on is environmental vegetarianism. This year has seen an influx of debates regarding the carbon footprint and impact of our diets.
While some people argue that giving up meat and supplementing their intake with dairy products only fractionally improves their carbon footprint, there is a growing number of agencies opting into vegetarianism as a sustainable way to avoid the negative environmental impact of meat production.
“The big thing for us is a vegetarian Christmas dinner,” said Reuben Turner, creative partner at The Good Agency. “The UK’s agencies will buy staff and clients thousands of Christmas meals this season. Making them vegetarian and vegan by default will have an immediate impact on emissions.”
Turner argues that this will also change behaviours by getting people to rethink what’s normal - “which is what creativity is meant to be all about, right?” he added.
VaynerMedia London has also decided to provide plant-based catering, hiring caterers with vegan options on their menus, given rising concern over health and large-scale farming’s impact on climate change, animal welfare and waste.
"Christmas sees a massive increase in consumption driven by a well-meaning wish to gift and entertain," said Neil Henderson, chief executive at St Luke’s. "By being mindful of how the season impacts the environment we can make sure our generous motivations are good for all.”
For this reason, since 2006 St Luke's has put up a sustainable Christmas tree. "In 2006 we commissioned an artist, Lauren Porter, who knits all sorts of objects to knit us a Christmas tree with presents and a fire and decorations including a golden flying ox," said Henderson. "It has been displayed at our reception every year ever since, avoiding the annual destruction of a tree and new decorations.*
In a similar vein, The Specialist Works is renting instead of buying its office Christmas trees.
Gifting is another area that could be more sustainable in the industry. Client gifts arguably encourage wasted packaging while the traditional £5 secret Santa's produce thousands of gifts that often occupy the attention of the giftee for a short period of time before going to waste.
Ad agency Do the Green Thing has created Ungifted Secret Santa, an 'anti stuff' platform in conjunction with other agencies.
"Secret Santa should be fun, but it’s not. Panic-bought, generic gifts are a crushing disappointment to receive and a pain to our planet when they’re invariably thrown away, said Naresh Ramchandani, partner, pentagram design, and co-founder of the sustainability-focused ad shop.
He said that with Do The Green Thing’s Ungifted Secret Santa, colleagues can do away with “hilarious” mugs or yet another candle, and gift each other things people actually want - like unprompted applause in your next meeting, a handpicked selection of the finest memes, a surprise burrito or anything else they can think of.
"This holiday season, we want colleagues to gift each other unforgettable surprises instead of unwanted stuff," he said.
Meanwhile, at St Luke's everynone will receive a sustainable gift. "Last year we gave everyone light, reusable bamboo cutlery to help them avoid single-use plastic cutlery," said Henderson.
VaynerMedia is looking into sustainable Gifts, exploring how client gifts can focus around carbon offsetting.
"We have rethought our Christmas gift giving by sourcing our presents for clients and partners through an ethical, eco-friendly company," said Martin Woolley from the Specialist Works. "Instead of giving each employee a Christmas present (a long-standing tradition), this year everyone wants to donate the money to a charity of their choice. No wrapping waste, lots of goodwill."
A more unusual Christmas activity, this year Dentsu Aegis Network has partnered with WWF to encourage its employees to enjoy a more sustainable Christmas this year. With help from the charity, it is running a pop-up shop selling sustainable Christmas decorations and gifts.
At Iris this year, the agency is using its Christmas card to highlight one of the key contributors to climate change – deforestation and the effects it has on our air quality.
So instead of cutting down trees at Christmas, Iris is planting them - partnering with London based charity Trees for Cities. Directing the budgets they would usually spend on creating a card towards a cause for good and making a donation to Trees for Cities who are a UK-based charity committed to improving lives by planting trees and creating greener cities.
While efforts at Christmas time to be more sustainable should not be discredited, it won't solve any longer-term issues. William Skeaping, activist and creative strategist at Extinction Rebellion said "the problem is going away, it's just getting worse."
He called upon the industry to make a new year's resolution for 2020: "No more business as usual."
Aware that sustainability is for life and not just for Christmas, Iris is launching its sustainable 'New Years Resolution' in January.
Essen, who led the Create and Strike protest, says that 2020 needs to be the year that we become clear on the true climate impact we put out, into the world. "We need to work together to regulate and moderate it in order to achieve the year on year reductions in CO2 that will help limit warming to 1.5 degrees," he said.
"From a create and Strike perspective, we want to make it even more impactful next year. Whatever their climate baggage, there's no excuse for any agency not to support the youth strikes," Essen contended.