Adland must use lessons from Covid-19 to act on climate change

This Earth Day, we want to identify the industry's leaders in finding new ways to cut carbon, cut waste and cut the crap.

If there are any silver linings to Covid-19's dark clouds, then quiet skies, clean city air and traffic-free streets must be among them. Add in the boost to walking, cycling, gardening and sourcing locally grown food, and our living environment would seem to benefit from the crisis. On Earth Day, which is today (22 April), this offers a flicker of positivity among the overwhelming challenges of the moment.

For now, at least.

But the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference is postponed, the world’s attention is on the immediate crisis, and that attention will soon turn to speedy economic recovery – even for the now-infamous "wet markets". And so the danger of neglecting the great existential emergency of climate change and biodiversity loss is clear. 

Aggravated by nationalistic argument over blame and culpability, encouraged by calls for a reversal of global interdependence and for greater national self-reliance and competition at all costs, the world’s capacity to tackle the climate crisis coherently could suffer badly, losing precious time in the battle to save our planet.

"Get back to normal" will be the urge, from both outside and within our industry. But let’s not waste the opportunity to move forward to a new "normal". One in which the lessons of Covid-19 can be added to those we have already learned about achieving a more sustainable way of life, including how we all work to produce and deliver brilliant advertising.

Right now, the focus of the Advertising Association's Climate Action Group is on helping our industry get to grips with its own emissions and waste, prompt change among its suppliers and partners, and influence the policies of its clients and the behaviour of the public. All while being mindful of the trauma of the moment for so many of our businesses.

We have appointed environmental consultancy Green Element to work with our think tank Credos to determine the (pre-crisis) carbon footprint of the agencies and related companies at the heart of advertising. We are aiming to set a path to net zero for all to agree and follow over coming years.

We are exploring the concerns and the ideas of the people working in our industry to guide companies to adopt the policies and practices that will meet their own people’s aspirations. Talent will not be attracted to laggards.

We are collecting the stories of innovation, best practice and corporate commitment from around the industry to inspire swift progress towards sustainable behaviours. There are hundreds of great examples, large and small, across our sectors; we may only be able to select a few for publication in our forthcoming report, but we will make all we collect available. The report will be published this autumn.

Whether examining film production or poster sites, the "meetings culture" or travel habits, we are identifying the industry’s leaders in finding new ways to cut carbon, cut waste and cut the crap. Our group has also formed supporting specialist groups, digging deeper into areas where collective effort from areas such as film and print production or media agency planning can accelerate positive action.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste" was said (or, like so many epigrams, said to be said) by Winston Churchill in planning the world’s recovery from the pain and destruction of the Second World War.

It applies now. Covid-19 may be a nightmare for many, but it can also show how we can work together when confronted by a real threat. How life’s priorities can be reordered in the light of harsh but revealing experience. How old habits can soon seem outdated and irrelevant when new ones prove better. Perhaps, most importantly, how the natural world, when we have the time and quiet to appreciate it, can inspire, succour and refresh us as long as we look after it.

Our work is only beginning; we need everyone in our industry to feel part of it and to appreciate its worth to us and to everyone whose lives our advertising touches. If you want to know more, please get in touch with as at the Advertising Association. Help us make sure our industry’s new "normal" delivers real, positive action on our climate crisis.

James Best is chair of the Climate Action Working Group at the Advertising Association

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