“Meeting global climate goals will require rapid transformation of societies. Incremental change is no longer an option. Wide-ranging, large-scale and systemic transformation is now needed.”
This was a statement from the latest UNEP Emissions Gap report that perfectly encompassed and, in a way, backed up the majority of sustainability and environmental talks held across adland in the past year. Two years after the start of Ad Net Zero in the UK and its subsequently established chapter in the US, and a year after Purpose Disruptors launched their Good Life 2030 project – both efforts of the advertising world to tackle the damage it has done to the environment and finally stop it – what has really changed? 2022 can arguably be looked at as the year a lot of people woke up to the true scope of the climate emergency, and although by no means is the entire world aware of the catastrophic events that are to unravel if we do not take action now, various industries, have taken part in trying to help to various extents. It can also be looked at as the year when unbearable heat set parts of London on fire during the summer, Pakistan suffered devastating floods and Australia had to wrestle with a plethora of environmental disasters. Undoubtedly, the advertising and marketing industry has taken a look at itself and its own due diligence in the crisis, it has welcomed some interrogation and has self-evaluated, repeatedly. But what now? Just before Christmas bells start ringing and the New Year provides a new list of resolutions – regardless if the past ones have been ticked off – we want to know, has the advertising world risen up to the challenge that it set up for itself? Has change been really made?
Alison Pepper, EVP Government Relations and Sustainability at the 4A’s, believes that there is a debate to be held, but one thing stands true – 2022 will ‘likely be looked back upon as a baseline year for when real change began.’ She continues, “And real change begins with understanding where you’re standing from, and charting a course to where you’re trying to get to. In adland, this has meant that more and more agencies, advertisers, publishers, platforms and ad tech companies have worked to understand and establish their own carbon footprints and disclose them publicly.” It is true, though, that carbon footprints are not the only metric by which success or failure should be measured in this discussion. To Alison it is also worth noting that accounting and disclosure of carbon footprints is just the first step in achieving the ultimate goal – reduction in emissions.
The Ad Net Zero Global summit in 2022 made it clear that pressure from consumers, from employees, and from governments is the three-legged table that can lift up the efforts adland is willing to put in. “Already, adland is seeing all these pressures, increasingly so from governments, to not only disclose, but start setting targets for reduction,” says Alison. “The path forward will not be easy, as even the first step of simple disclosure is not without its difficulties, but it will happen, and 2022 will likely be looked back upon as the year adland collectively started making progress.”
Starting to make progress however, is surely not enough. And according to Saunders Carmichael-Brown, sustainability ambassador of Little Dot Studios, even the start has been quite weak. “In short, progress has not been made,” he says. “Some are beginning to understand the environmental impact of their operations, us at Little Dot Studios included, and are working to reduce whilst continuing to grow and develop, but many are still simply ticking boxes when it comes to sustainability and science-based targets rather than being part of the movement that will have a positive effect. The right things are being said, but actions aren’t quite meeting the expectations yet.” However, this isn’t across the board. Little Dot Studios, for example, became one of the first agencies of their kind to be verified as carbon neutral to Future Net Zero Standard for their operational output. Not only that, but they also backdated and offset their emissions since inception back in 2013, with a clear plan set to ‘achieve future ambitions’.
Saunders continues, “Policy and backing that comes from the top down inspires the change needed without companies feeling like they’re doing it all on their own. It takes a change in thinking, less profit and growth drive, and more long term sustainability with awareness of impact playing a huge role. We’re seeing this more with things like B Corp, but there is still a huge amount that has to be done to make businesses understand their accountability and incentivise those who need it more to change policies, tweak operations and build targets.”
Purpose Disruptors, who invited the industry to lean into what real systemic transformation is meant to look like as part of their Good Life 2030 project, also believe that setting up the space for conversation is what happened in 2022. Rob McFaul, co-founder of the organisation, admits that it is clear when that space is created, leaders are ambitious about the level of progress needed, including massive shifts in terms of how the industry exists and who it serves. But now, “there needs to be more connection between these visions and what is really happening, mostly iterative change related to the industry’s emissions from operations, production and media,” says Rob.
But let’s take a look at Ad Net Zero – one of the projects that skyrocketed adland’s efforts in the past couple of years and restlessly works to actually make the industry match expectations. Sebastian Munden, chair at the organisation and former chief executive of Unilever UK&I, is categorical that the next three years are going to be key in making the most impact possible on global temperatures, and movement needs to be significantly faster, changing ‘both the way we work and the work we make’. When looking at what immediate actions need to be taken right now on the Ad Net Zero Action Plan, Seb gives his top five priorities for now: “Switching fast to renewable energy, more carbon-conscious production processes including a lot less transport and travel, establishing a common media decarbonisation framework through our global media group and using more strategic, creative, and technical powers to support the uptake of more sustainable products, services and behaviours.” Lastly, he urges – “if your company hasn’t yet, become a supporter and start working on the five actions. As Laura Wade, VP, head of sustainability at Essence, said during our Global Summit: ‘You’ve got everything to lose, so you may as well go hard or go home.’”
And while summits and events do a lot for the conversation stirring, every day we are reminded and shocked at how much worse the environmental crisis is than most people had thought. Sil van der Woerd and Jorik Dozy, creative directors at Studio Birthplace who work directly with scientists, researchers and change drivers on their films, explain that “we’re losing wildlife species 1,000-10,000 times faster than before the industrial revolutions” and we have in fact lost 70% of wildlife on land since the ‘70s. We are on course for three to four degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century, not the original 1.5 expectation. This is why in their own way, the creators at Studio Birthplace and their production partner Park Village do everything to protect the integrity of their voice within the industry.
“Advertising has played and continues to play a pivotal role in misdirecting the public deeper into the climate emergency, by promoting products that we shouldn’t necessarily buy because those products and businesses often ignore the sometimes devastating environmental, animal and human suffering that are invisible to consumers from their end products,” say Sil and Jorik. “But of course advertising can also have a huge influence in changing behaviour for the better. These behavioural change campaigns, inspiring a positive outcome for the planet and people are what we’re interested in investing our time and talent in. We want to direct work that makes a difference to how people see the climate crisis, and this would mean working with agencies and brands that genuinely want to develop their messaging and processes to make a positive impact, without it being just greenwashing or lip service to the issue of the day.” The key, to them, is putting the planet and the people before any profit, to better research clients on their production process and product impact and to say a firm ‘no’ to polluting and greenwashing clients.
They continue, “This is so much more important to us than just trying to figure out how we can produce more sustainably, which is admirable, but somewhat of a distraction to the key issue. Because what does the word ‘sustainability’ really mean? Everyone has a sustainability tab on their webpage these days, but what are we trying to sustain? The polluting, exploiting status quo? We don’t need sustainability; we need a climate positive approach. Sustainability shouldn’t be an afterthought, slapped on retrospectively so we can sleep at night.”
Billy Offland, an environmental researcher, filmographer and producer at Chief, who has spent the past few years chasing a personal mission to visit every country in the world to document the disappearance of its nature and what people do to protect it, believes that Sil and Jorik might be onto something. To him, rather than focusing on actions, the industry should be communicating loudly and clearly what it takes to make transformative change, and ultimately create a sustainable mindset. “Actions can vary, but as much as we’re united by a need to act, we’re all connected through needing this mindset – a mindset that will control all of our actions,” says Billy.
The need to translate this mindset to clients is also evident. Carly Stone, partner at MADAM films, also believes that 2022 “continued with the noise from brands and agencies pleading to reduce carbon” and that was highlighted at Cannes Lions, yet, as the industry approaches the new year, for her it still feels very much a one-way action when the company’s eco policy and production budget levies are still being questioned by clients.
Rohtau, the UK Visual FX company, echoes that and stacks their own cards on top. They realise that even for those that haven’t quite jumped on the sustainability bandwagon yet, there will be a moral and commercial value to being part of the ultimate solution to the problem, no matter if they are on client or agency side. “This is why it’s very natural that from now on things will progress fast, one way or another. We will see progression. Those corporations who champion this new era of truly environmentally friendly approaches in their core business strategy are the ones that are going to flourish,” say Jordi Bares, VFX supervisor and creative director, and Josh King, sustainability consultant.
Responding to the previously mentioned oh-so-familiar sustainability website tab that has no substance behind it, Jordi and Josh bring the challenge of full transparency at the table of the industry. “We must demand all partners in any production to publish the metrics of their operations, on a monthly basis, in terms of their actual energy consumption and CO2 footprint. A global, free-to-access, searchable database with an API, and rankings of all partners/content involved, and plan for the journey to zero emissions, so we can have a positive impact in society.” The key to that, however, is not animosity, but working as one and shifting the narrative to turn emissions reduction into a collective end. According to Rohtau, although there might be some challenges ahead, the efforts that go into this crucial change are more intellectual, rather than capital-intensive ones, so working as one can turn the course of things around.
So, we turn back to the hopeful ring to Rob McFaul’s words – “Change is coming.” He and Purpose Disruptors know that activist groups like Clean Creatives and the ASA are cracking down on greenwashing, and there is more and more government regulation incoming. “Yet, with the growing number of agencies joining the #ChangeTheBrief Alliance and industry leaders’ visions of the industry itself, we all understand that we need to play a meaningful role in driving the societal change we need to see. The question is, if 2023 will be the tipping point for that change.” And, according to Studio Birthplace, for that tipping point to be reached, everybody needs to get on board.
As Sil and Jorik conclude, “the advertising industry has been selling people fantasies for too long. Now it is time to sell realities.”