Why adland must work with ‘whole economy’ to fight climate change – including fossil fuels
As Cop27 drew to a close, we sat down with Ad Net Zero chair Seb Munden to discuss the ad industry’s progress in addressing climate change.
Cop27 revealed global heating is unlikely to be halted at 1.5 degrees / Image via Unsplash
This year’s Cop27 conference has not been considered a success by climate experts. In his opening statements to the summit, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres warned “we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator” and urged world leaders to “cooperate or perish.”
Yet while delegates reached what is being considered a “breakthrough” agreement on paying loss and damages to the nations worst affected by climate change, not enough progress was made on cutting emissions for the biggest polluters, with the dream of keeping global heating to 1.5 degrees “barely alive.”
Ad Net Zero (ANZ) launched at last year’s Cop26 in Glasgow, positioning itself as “advertising’s response to the climate crisis” and facilitating advertisers to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.
At the Ad Net Zero summit, which took place in London earlier this month, Ad Net Zero chair Seb Munden called for the industry to move “further, faster” on all five action points laid out by the organization – which follow the framework of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, and address three key areas of the supply chain, known as Scope 1, 2 and 3.
The first, and “lowest hanging fruit,” according to Munden, is the emissions produced by the day-to-day running of the industry through avenues such as heating offices, running devices and travel. “In many ways, it is the most straightforward,” he says, “and, given the current cost of energy, would probably save you a bit of money.”
ANZ is also encouraging agencies to track as much of their data as possible through carbon auditing and carbon reporting so they can best understand their own output. “It’s really going to help you in terms of having a conversation with your supply chain, and with your clients, because we all need to do this.”
However, when it comes to adland’s Scope 2 emissions, or the emissions created indirectly through working alongside other industries (such as production and media planning and buying), Munden concedes “perhaps we have not had our finest hour yet.”
“When we look at areas like production, you see the value of a common set of assumptions around the carbon footprint of different elements of activity, so I think what we need to look at is where that can be updated with better information and activity systems.
“In the media world, for example, there is a big difference between proprietary and competitive planning tools versus common data.” Munden explains that in order for base data to be measured correctly across the media supply chain, a common methodology must be established, “and we’re going to have to have pre-competitive collaboration to establish the carbon footprint of various channels.”
ANZ says it is currently convening a working group to tackle this subject, so we can expect to hear more within the next year.
But when it comes to Scope 3 emissions, which are the emissions added by the value chain advertising creates, Munden says that although “we can never do enough” to shift desires and behaviors towards more sustainable lifestyles, “I don’t think advertising can do everything, and I’m not sure it should be held accountable for a footprint beyond its own.”
He refers to a recent report by industry activist group Purpose Disruptors that calculated that the sales uplift from advertising adds 32% to the carbon footprint of every person in the UK.
“Sales attribution to advertising is a difficult science,” he says. “The evidence we have is that it’s not as much as people think, and it can be conveniently overestimated.”
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Though Munden does appear to recognize the importance of utilizing the power of advertising to shift behaviors towards more sustainable ones (“We want to champion and show the way forward to the types of work we think will support the emergence of a circular economy, a net zero economy – however you want to describe it – and that comes with promoting more sustainable products and behaviors“), ANZ has yet to lay out exactly how it will quantify these goals in the coming years and months.
It says it is currently working on its own metrics around the sales impact from advertising, as outlined in GHG protocol Scope 3, “but the jury’s out on that.”
Munden also emphasizes that the transition into pushing for greener behaviors cannot be limited to the brands, products and services already on the journey. “We have to ensure we don’t have a very small group moving very fast, and then having another group disempowered.”
Adland’s contentious relationship with fossil fuel clients has been the source of a good deal of campaigning by activists both in and outside the industry. At the start of the year, more than 450 scientists came forward urging ad and PR firms to cut ties with Big Oil. But despite increasing pressure, Munden is resolute that “we cannot leave huge swathes of the industry behind.”
In his view, adland must continue to work with high-carbon and fossil fuel clients in order to “help change the brief, to help educate and to help figure out a commercially viable journey for our advertising partners,” though, to his earlier point, he recognizes the limitations of adland’s power to “do everything. That has to suffuse into business strategy as well.”
ANZ’s commitment remains to move the entire economy along, rather than neglect the most impactful sectors. “Our job is to keep bringing people together, encouraging everyone to do a little bit better.”