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Effective ad campaigns are making UK’s carbon emissions problem worse


By Jennifer Faull, Deputy Editor

November 9, 2021 | 5 min read

A new report into the impact of marketing on carbon output has found that successful ads add an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK.

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Advertised Emissions in the UK in 2019 were responsible for more than 186m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents

The ad industry knows it has work to do in reducing its carbon emissions, but has largely focused on making the processes involved in creating and distributing a marketing campaign more efficient.

Purpose Disruptors – a network of ad industry workers looking to reform the sector to tackle climate change – thinks it needs to go one step further. It posed that the more effective an ad campaign, the more products will be sold and, in turn, the more emissions are produced by these products being created. And so it set out to calculate exactly how big the carbon footprint of a successful ad is on the environment.

In its report, revealed at Cop26 today, it defined the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that result from the uplift in sales generated by advertising as ‘Advertised Emissions.’

To calculate the total Advertised Emissions, it analyzed 2019 data on advertising spend across 19 UK sectors via Warc, as well as the advertising return on investment in each sector and the GHG emissions per pound of output by sector (see the methodology table below).


Advertised Emissions in the UK in 2019 were responsible for more than 186m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents – almost half the size of the UK’s total domestically-produced emissions.

It is equivalent to 47 coal-fired power plants running for one year and is adding an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK.

“Over a quarter of every UK consumers’ total emissions are driven by the posters, sponsorships and ads that influence our decisions every day,” explained Ben Essen, co-author of Advertised Emissions and chief strategy officer at Iris.

“Advertising has an incredible power to shape behaviors and norms, though this power is currently being used indiscriminately.”

Methodology for the report was based on ‘Financed Emissions,’ which is utilized by the finance industry to measure the full impact of its investments.

When this metric is measured, including the additional emissions associated with growing, mining, drilling, manufacturing, shipping and using the extra products that advertising helps sell, the report established that every person working in advertising in the UK is, on average, responsible for the carbon footprint of 34 of their fellow UK citizens.

Purpose Disruptors hopes the findings will move the industry away from measuring only the baseline emissions associated with running an advertising business to the emissions associated with its output.

In addition to using Advertised Emissions as its primary measurement metric, the group has also called on the ad industry to take further action to reduce its impact on the environment.

It wants brands to reduce spend and advertising on high-carbon businesses and for agencies to reallocate skill away from promoting high-carbon consumer choices to lower-carbon ones.

“To date, none of the existing net zero or climate commitments by advertising and marketing communications agencies include the impact in relation to the creative work they produce – the very reason they exist,” said Purpose Disruptors founder Jonathan Wise.

“Those creating the emissions that cause climate change need to take responsibility for measuring their current contribution and commit to reducing them toward net zero.

“Advertising is a powerful cultural force with the gift and responsibility to shift the sector’s role in shaping the current, high-consumption landscape toward a low-consumption alternative.

“I think most people in the sector would be shocked that their work is having such a detrimental impact. But this isn’t a negative story – as architects of demand, advertising has the power to be a force for good. It is capable of inducing people to switch to lower carbon options and so reduce emissions.

“The finance industry has accepted that its climate impact reaches far beyond its day-to-day emissions. It is time for advertising to step up and do the same.”

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