Don’t sit on the sidelines: Five ways ad industry can lead on sustainability after COP26

The Advertising Association's Stephen Woodford stares unsmilingly into the camera, while a potted fern spills into the background
Woodford: COP26 is over but momentum behind sustainability must continue

COP26 may be over, but it's crucial the industry continues the momentum towards a more sustainable future. UK adland can be a world leader in driving that change, writes Advertising Association CEO Stephen Woodford.

COP26 dominated the headlines for the first two weeks of November, but now the summit is over, it’s time to look hard at what was achieved and what our industry can do to drive the sustainability agenda forward.

First, credit to the huge effort involved in hosting the event and, in particular, to the government team who worked tirelessly, led by COP26 president Alok Sharma. Given the many different voices and opinions competing for position, there was always going to be a mixed response to the pledges of COP.

What was different about Glasgow compared to the last COP in Paris was the increased level and breadth of engagement from businesses from across the global economy and the level of ambition they exhibited. This commitment from businesses will be critical to build a sustainable economy.

The advertising industry, like every other one, has to be a force for change and, unlike many, its reach across the consumer economy and its ability to accelerate behaviour change, competition and innovation means there is huge potential to be a positive force.

As minister for industry, Lee Rowley told delegates at the Ad Net Zero Global Summit at COP26 that the UK has an opportunity to become a world leader in low-carbon technologies and strategies.

The minister recognised how the advertising industry is rising to this challenge with world-first tools for production and distribution: AdGreen and the IPA Media Calculator.

With that in mind, here are my five key takeaways from COP26:

We must show progress year-on-year in this "decade of change"

Ad Net Zero, the action plan to reach net zero in advertising’s operations by 2030, is now a year old.

When we launched the initiative with our fellow trade associations ISBA and the IPA in November 2020, we had no supporters and a goal of delivering a summit for international colleagues 12 months on.

We are delighted with the industry’s backing and achievements in year one and now more than 80 companies have committed to this plan.

But this is just the first year in a crucial decade-long plan to transform the industry into an effective driver of our society and economy to a sustainable world.

We have already committed to return next November with an update on the progress of Ad Net Zero in year two, running alongside COP27 in Egypt. 

Let’s ratchet up the ambition, here in the UK and internationally

Our ambition from the outset is to help hundreds of thousands of advertising professionals, in the UK and internationally, navigate the complex issue of climate change and understand how they can personally make positive changes in their working lives to help tackle this global issue.

By doing so, we will influence the impact of thousands of companies throughout the advertising supply chain and have a positive impact on the work made on behalf of advertisers.

We have opened new conversations with international partners seeking to set up initiatives that make a difference in their own territories.

Here in the UK, we will be introducing a certification scheme in 2022 for supporters, to demonstrate how they are adhering to new industry standards.

We welcome all companies that wish to achieve this ambition to join Ad Net Zero, including those who would like to set new ambitions.

My advice is don’t be a voice from the sidelines. Bring in your specialisms and help drive a genuine industry movement as fast as we can.

The faster we move on our plans, the more likely we can keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C in sight and introduce new goals beyond net zero for our industry in the coming years.

We must drive a system change in the way we work

Climate change is a challenge (and an opportunity) for every advertising professional to get to grips with. What’s happening to our climate affects every one of us, and it has an impact on the day-to-day working lives of every person who works in our industry.

The Ad Net Zero Essentials Certificate is designed to help people learn about this and prepare for the changes coming in the way they will work and in the work that they will produce.

We have had a tremendous response to the training already with teams from media owners, agencies, brands and tech platforms signing up. We know of plans to use the training as a catalyst for a bigger conversation about sustainability within their companies.

I would urge everyone in our industry to look at this training and consider how it can be used to drive a system change in your workplace. 

We need to account for advertising's real-world impact

There is also debate about putting metrics to the real-world impact of advertising’s work. A new report, Advertised Emissions, attempted to put some initial numbers on the UK industry’s effect.

Ad Net Zero will be working with our supporters and others to look closer at these numbers, as well as other sources, to help develop an agreed metric that allows advertisers and their teams to account for the impact of real-world success in sales of products and services.

This will form another part of Action 5 in our Action Plan, alongside the likes of #ChangeTheBrief, as we look at ways advertising can positively influence consumer behaviour change and support more sustainable ways of living.

We must avoid greenwashing

It is imperative we have the knowledge and act with responsibility to ensure the work we produce is legal, decent, honest and truthful.

Our work will be rightly scrutinised by the public. It is critical for us to avoid the pitfalls of greenwashing if we are to continue to rebuild the public’s trust in advertising.

The more we are trusted, the better our work can be in helping to tackle this global issue. The Competition and Markets Authority has recently produced guidance on green claims in ads to complement the extensive work from the Advertising Standards Authority in reviewing its existing rules on climate change and sustainability.

More detail is covered in our new training. We are equipped with a robust self-regulatory system to protect against greenwashing, and awareness will only continue to increase as the regulatory spotlight brightens.

We need everyone’s support

In summary, helping to tackle climate change will be one of the defining issues for our industry this decade.

We need everyone’s support to achieve the effective implementation of the Ad Net Zero Action Plan.

By doing so, we will ensure our industry delivers on its potential to help businesses and people deal with this global issue, protect our world and support a more sustainable way of life.

Stephen Woodford is chief executive of the Advertising Association

Find out more about Ad Net Zero here, or email


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