'It needs to look outwards': how adland can get serious about sustainability in 2022

The IPCC has said that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees will require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society
The IPCC has said that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees will require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society

To make the biggest difference when it comes to sustainability, the industry must consider its outward impact on society. Luckily, this is what it does best. Here are three things for the industry to remember as it gets serious about sustainability.

In Campaign’s 2022 'Year ahead for agencies’ feature, four industry luminaries predicted the themes that would define the agency landscape in 2022: purpose, diversity and sustainability.  

As we think about the year ahead, what would it mean for the industry to be truly "sustainable"?  For us to do what we can to help shift society to be more sustainable. As Uncommon’s Natalie Graeme puts it, "to use our power properly".

The interviewed leaders rightly cite the fantastic success of Ad Net Zero in 2021. But to date, Ad Net Zero’s primary focus has been on internal initiatives – measuring and reducing the carbon footprint of the offices, the production process, and media selection – via tools like Adgreen and the IPA Media Carbon Calculator

To make the biggest difference when it comes to sustainability, the industry can’t just look inwards – it needs to consider its outward impact on society. Luckily, this is what we do best. So here are three things for the industry to remember as it gets serious about sustainability:

  1.  It’s all about the work

That’s why we turn up every day. To produce powerful, effective creative output for our clients.  As the architects of desire, if we are serious about wanting to be sustainable, the lens we need to look through is the work we are producing. One core component of Ad Net Zero, which that been adopted by brands including EDF energy, is the #ChangeTheBrief Alliance - a learning platform that enables the promotion of more sustainable behaviours on a clients business.

It helps people ask: is this campaign going to increase or decrease the carbon footprint of the consumers it is targeting? Is this campaign helping shift society to live more sustainable lifestyles? Or is it doing the opposite – piggybacking consumer concern about the planet to greenwash a brand, while not helping address the crisis?  

These are the sort of questions an agency committed to being more sustainable needs to be asking itself. Ultimately, our industry measures its success through the cultural impact of the ideas it puts out there. When we are evaluating our effectiveness in being sustainable we need to do the same.

  1. It starts with data

As an industry, we’re trained to use data to focus on the opportunities with the biggest impact – "fewer, bigger, better", as AMV BBDO’s chief exec Sam Hawkey predicts.  Likewise, sustainability starts with the numbers. Only by calculating the actual climate impact of a brand and its products can we identify the most significant transformation opportunities.

Agencies looking to quantify (and reduce) the footprint generated by their creative work for clients now have the answer: advertised emissions. Advertised emissions are the greenhouse gas emissions that result from the uplift in sales generated by advertising.

Launched at COP26 in November, the report calculates the advertised emissions of the UK advertising industry as 186 million tonnes of CO2. To put this in context, that’s 186 times the industry’s total "direct" emissions from making and placing the advertising, as calculated for Ad Net Zero.

And because the advertised emissions figure is calculated from sales that econometrics show wouldn’t have happened without advertising, we can also calculate that advertising added 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK.

That is the current impact of our creative output in society.  And if we want to be sustainable, our goal should be to bring that number down in line with what the science demands – a 50% reduction by 2030.

How do we do this? The start point to this is diving into the data to understand where our biggest "problem areas" are, in order to start the work of reducing them. We are already working with a number of agencies' and their clients’ econometrics teams to build this data set, and will be standardising the approach into an easy to use tool, accessible to all.

  1. It ends with radical creativity

While data can help us find the biggest problems, overcoming them requires unprecedented levels of creativity. What does an agency look like where all its work is focussed on helping half the carbon footprint of their clients and their consumers? What services is that agency providing? What new skill sets does it need to invest in? This work will require not only communications output but new digital platforms, operational transformation and cultural reinvigoration.

But above all, it will require a robust understanding of people, their climate anxieties and tensions, their unmet sustainability needs.

This intelligence will provide the springboard and the proof that empowers brands to properly back sustainable transformation. 

Another initiative we launched at COP26 was the "GoodLife2030", which used citizen research from across the UK to understand how people’s aspirations coming out of Covid have changed: from high carbon lifestyles defined by the consumption of stuff, towards lifestyles defined by connection to ourselves, each other and the natural world. What if, as an agency, you were committed to helping redefine this new version of the "Good life" in society?

According to the 2022 Circularity Gap report, 91% of the resources put into the manufacture of consumer goods are currently wasted. Yet despite this, many brands lack real commitment to solving this. Even Nike, which in October quietly shelved its "Reuse-a-shoe" recycling programme due to Brexit-related costs. What would it take to make these kinds of initiatives so popular they become commercially indispensable to a brand? How could advertising help make them exciting and cultural, how could CX make them easy and habitual? 

This is a job that only our industry can do – no other has the necessary blend of skills. Because brands need sustainability ideas that are at once both substantial and exciting. Substantial in that they are credibly reducing environmental impact at scale (and so avoiding greenwash); exciting in that people want to actively participate with them so that they don’t get shelved six months later.

At Iris, we have assembled a diverse suite of skills in our future strategy team to help brands like Pizza Hut and Starbucks to manage this tension. Sustainability experts collide with creative strategists to create decarbonising ideas that people want to participate in. They will be talking about how they created one such idea, our "Attack mode" platform for Formula E, with the APG next week

The next big transformation opportunity

The IPCC has said that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees will require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. This will include advertising agencies and marketing departments.

Because halving emissions by 2030 will require an entire restructuring of the relationship between people and brands. Instead of selling a disposable product to a "consumer", brands will find themselves sharing non-disposable products and services with "participants" in a circular, sustainable system. At the heart of this system will be data. Every ton of CO2e will be accounted for. Business and regulators will demand to know: what made emissions go up? What made emissions go down?

So whose job is it to build this behaviour-changing "marketing ecosystem" in which for every screen, sofa, or shoe sold, one is returned back into the system? Who is going to help take society on the journey by shifting attitudes, behaviours and expectations before the unavoidable regulation takes place?

The real opportunity is this: the sustainability transformation will be as significant as the digital transformation. And like marketers came to realise that "digital" was about more than banner ads, we will come to realise that "sustainable" is about more than greenwash ads for high-carbon clients.

In 2021, advertising executives sat at the bottom of the Ipsos MORI Trust Poll – trusted even less than government ministers. Delving deeper into the why, 49% of the UK public think ad execs promote unnecessary consumption. Is 2022 going to be the year when we embrace the truth about the climate impact of the consumption we help generate?

To transform ourselves and our work and deploy our immense creativity towards helping address our climate emergency and become truly sustainable. In undertaking this transformation, we not only help save the world, but save ourselves.

Ben Essen is chief strategy officer at Iris and Jonathan Wise is co-founder of Purpose Disruptors

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