It’s time to put the climate emergency higher on US Adland’s agenda

Recent efforts in the U.K. and Europe demonstrate that the U.S., the world’s largest ad market and economy, is lagging behind on climate action.

I’ve recently been struck by the climate coverage coming out of Campaign’s news team in London, and how much activity is happening in the advertising industry across the pond when it comes to climate action.

Last year, U.K. trade bodies including the Advertising Association, Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and Incorporated Society of British Advertisers put climate at the top of their agendas when they teamed up to launch Ad Net Zero, an initiative to get the entire UK ad industry to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030. 

That focus and urgency has laddered its way up to the UK’s competition watchdog, which recently announced a sweeping review of greenwashing claims by corporations, sparked by the fact that 40% of green claims made online are misleading. Companies have until the end of the year to clean up their messaging or face investigation.  

Climate activists are getting involved. Last week in London, groups including Brandalism and Free Cities ran a campaign leading up to COP26 that directly called out major agencies, including Ogilvy, VCCP and MediaCom, for working with fossil fuel polluters such as Shell, BP, Jaguar Land Rover and British Airways, urging them to terminate the relationships.

This pressure is trickling down to business decisions. According to a recentCampaign survey, ​​one in five UK ad agencies claim they are turning down work from clients and partners who do not work in an environmentally sustainable way, and 60% said they will walk away from unsustainable new business opportunities in the future.

Other cities and countries in Europe are waking up to advertising’s impact on climate, too. Amsterdam banned ads from fossil fuel and aviation companies altogether on its subway system in May, and the rest of Europe is pushing for the same.

In the United States, the conversation is notably quieter. 

Yes, there are agitators and activists — look no further than Clean Creatives and Fossil Free Media. And yes, some agencies are taking it upon themselves to get B Corp certified, while others pay more attention to emissions at the holding company level

But no trade-body endorsed, cross-industry coalition exists like Ad Net Zero in the US. Why are the 4As, the ANA, the IAB and more not joining hands to do more?

As COP26 carries on this week, and the climate emergency only grows more urgent by the second, there’s no better time for the industry to reevaluate its role in the climate crisis. That responsibility extends beyond the emissions that advertisers, agencies and media owners themselves release into the atmosphere to the work they create and release into the world. 

Is it really fair or productive, for instance, to boast about efforts to get to net zero carbon emissions when you’re making blatantly greenwashed ads like this for fossil fuel polluters? 

As the world’s largest economy and advertising market, the U.S. ad industry has not just an opportunity, but a responsibility to lead on climate action. Ad agency CEOs tell me all the time that they turn away business when a client won’t meet fair demands; why not do the same for companies actively polluting the earth?

The U.S. is all free speech capitalism-first, and Big Oil is big money. But so was Big Tobacco once upon a time, and agencies eventually recognized that the reputational damage from working with cigarette companies wasn’t worth the added margin.

It’s time to start having a genuine conversation about how the US ad industry will put competition and greed aside and band together to eliminate our worst contributions to the climate crisis. Because without planet earth, there will be no advertising or businesses to work for at all.

If you don’t feel the urgency yet, I leave you with the opening film from COP26.

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