Carbon calculators and combatting greenwash: How will the advertising sector reach net-zero?

Last year, the advertising sector's trade body launched a new initiative to reach net-zero by 2030. To mark Engagement Week, edie explores how the sector is collaborating to meet this milestone while also spurring a wider culture change that informs the public on sustainable products and services.

Carbon calculators and combatting greenwash: How will the advertising sector reach net-zero?

In November 2020, the Advertising Association trade body launched a collaborative initiative to support the UK’s advertising industry to reach net-zero within a decade. Called Ad Net Zero, the scheme is being delivered as part of a partnership between the Association, IBSA and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).

It helps companies to adopt a five-point framework for reaching net-zero 20 years ahead of the UK Government’s national target, comprised by the Association’s Climate Working Action Group. Representatives from the likes of UnileverThe Guardian and Sky – which all have net-zero targets – sit on the Group.

With the main sources of emissions for the average advertising agency deriving from business travel and energy use, the sector can learn from others when it comes to decarbonising its own operations. However, as the Advertising Association’s chief executive Stephen Woodford tells edie, the sector can act as a disruptive force that ignites societal and corporate behaviour change to embrace this fast-growing sustainability movement.

“Wherever you sit in the ecosystem, regardless of the size of your organisation, you have a role to play,” Woodford says. “We’re really pleased that all the key players in the industry are on board [with Ad Net Zero]. The actions and commitments we’re making are significant; they’re changing the operations and the way our industry works and there is a real realisation that our industry has an important role to play.

“People within the industry want to be part of the solution, and also there’s a realisation that advertising touches all parts of the economy and plays an important role in the UK economic health and its vitality and competitiveness. Competition and innovation don’t exist without advertising and that’s what a lot of advertising is, it’s competing and innovating and the private sector is spending a lot of its energy and ambition by competing and innovating on sustainability.”

The Ad Net Zero movement is, therefore, multi-layered. It isn’t merely about those working within the industry reducing emissions from their operations and business travel, but also leveraging their scope, influence and external reach to outlining the inherent benefits of sustainable business, products and services to a UK-wide audience.

Operational focus

On the operational aspect, Ad Net Zero outlines measures to develop sustainability criteria for events and awards shows, alongside steps to educate the sector on how to measure and manage emissions.

Today (5 May) the sector has launched the AdGreen carbon calculator, which will enable organisations within the advertising industry to measure the carbon impact of their projects and to identify the highest carbon-producing activities free of charge.

The industry is introducing a new voluntary levy that sees advertisers contribute a small sum of the cost of production to cover the operation costs of AdGreen. Already, some of the most recognisable advertising agencies such as adam&eveDDB, Havas UK, Havas Studios and Mullen Lowe Group (representing IPG) have agreed to the levy, while corporates such as Unilever and Nestlé have also agreed to pay the levy in relation to their advertising.

These organisations have also joined the AdGreen advisory board to support members that are looking to become more sustainable. Already, more than 750 members have completed a free online training course aimed at educating those within the sector about climate-related risks through the context of the industry.

“We want Ad Net Zero to equip our members with the knowledge of the climate crisis, the risks of greenwashing and regulation around net-zero to create a base level of understanding so they can act accordingly,” Woodford adds. “At the moment expertise is not as widespread as it needs to be.”

Greenwash risks

The mention of greenwash is key to the sector’s net-zero transition.

As markets and economies shift towards green solutions, many businesses are using their corporate websites and social media channels to promote green solutions. Unfortunately, not all of these claims are based on facts and truths.

The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) hosts annual website “sweeps”, where brands are examined to remove potentially fraudulent, deceptive, or unfair online conduct.

An annual sweep of corporate websites has found that four in ten are providing information on environmental criteria that could be considered misleading and potentially breaking consumer laws.

For the first time, ICPEN has focused on environmental claims and whether they provide accurate information to consumers. Led by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) the latest sweep of almost 500 websites found that 40% were posting potentially misleading environmental information.

Websites ranged from environmental product and service providers to clothes, cosmetics and food brands. The sweep found that 40% of the websites posted vague claims that failed to define “eco”, “sustainable” or “natural products”. Others, posted own-brand sustainability labels that were not associated with accredited organisations, while many omitted key information such as the carbon footprint of products.

Experts have repeatedly claimed that greenwashing has become more common in recent years and that this trend will only accelerate in the coming years, as consumer and investor demands for sustainable products outpace corporate action. A recent survey of 1,000 people by Futerra found that most want to choose more eco-friendly options, but more than two-fifths think companies make it harder to do so, despite their sustainability commitments.

The advertising industry is therefore uniquely positioned to dispel concerns regarding greenwash.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent advertising regulator and adheres to the Advertising Codes that require advertisers to prove claims before they are published or aired. In 2020, the ASA resolved 36,342 complaints, an increase of 346% on the previous year.

It is through these robust codes and standards that the sector believes it can play a key role in changing consumer behaviours and challenging misconceptions around tackling environmental issues.

“All of the content in our sector is regulated,” Woodford adds. “The ASA regulates every commercial company. Even then, claims from corporates will be scrutinised and exposed by NGOs, and the reputational damage of being exposed to greenwashing outweighs any potential benefits of trying to trick your way in. One of the best sanctions against this type of action is negative media coverage.”

Advertising evolution

Woodford also notes that while efforts are underway to decarbonise the advertising sector, what is being advertised is already aligning with a low-carbon future.

Take the SuperBowl, where businesses grapple for primetime advertising spots to showcase their products to hundreds of millions of viewers. In 2020, the automotive sector bagged eight adverts during the event, of which, four were focused on electric vehicles (EVs). As MediaToolkit points out, in the previous 10 years, just three ads were shown for EVs.

Similar trends are now being spotted in the food industry, where the meteoric rise of veganism (in part for its planet-friendly benefits) has led to many retailers and fast-food restaurants prioritise and promote plant-based alternatives.

Some are even changing slogans that make them instantly recognisable. This year, Sainsbury’s moved on from its “Live well for less” slogan after 10 years to “helping everyone eat better”, in recognition that it had signed on as a principal partner for COP26.

Woodford notes that advertising is witnessing a “substitution effect,” across consumerism, whereby businesses replace existing products and services with green versions, and are now turning to advertising to position them. As such, the advertising is not just becoming more sustainable, it is promoting more sustainable ways of living.

“The biggest change we’ll likely see will be the output of the industry, in terms of behaviours and products,” Woodford notes. “By 2030 we want to make sure that every ad is a green ad. Not just the messaging but that what is being advertised is made and distributed in a sustainable way supporting sustainable products and lifestyle choices.”

edie’s Engagement Week 2021

From 4-7 May, edie brings its readers Engagement Week 2021, a series of podcasts, blogs, live events and interviews all focused on helping sustainability professionals achieve excellence when it comes to reporting and communications.

Brought to you by the award-winning edie content team, Engagement Week 2021 is our themed week of editorial content and events dedicated to supporting sustainability, energy and resource efficiency professionals build personal engagement and drive meaningful change through the work that they do.

Matt Bourn, Director of Communications, Advertising Association, will be taking part in edie’s live event on Thursday 6 May. Click here to find out more.

Matt Mace

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