We cannot tackle the climate crisis without the full backing of advertisers

If brands want to have licence to talk about the environment they need to show they understand the problems and are making moves to mitigate their impact.

Tackling climate change is the great challenge of our generation. It’s a task that calls to every individual, every community, every business and every nation – and it cannot and must not be avoided.

The final outcome of the crucial discussions that are taking place in Glasgow at Cop26 isn’t yet known. There are some positive signs of progress, just as there is frustration that many countries don’t yet seem ready to play their full part.

But while the politicians and negotiators are locked in talks, which often seem to move at a glacial pace – even while glaciers themselves are fast melting away – business doesn’t have to be bound to their timetable. That’s why advertisers and marketers have long been seized of the urgent need to act.

At the start of 2021, we committed to making sustainable advertising one of ISBA’s key priorities. This was a decision driven by our most senior members. They told us how important this issue was for them – not just at an advertising level, but at an organisational level. Many had already embedded sustainability into their corporate goals.

However, the sustainability of advertising activity in particular was often not high on the agenda. There was a clear need for CMOs to understand more about how they could both understand the impact of advertising on the environment and take steps to make positive changes.

We have focused on enabling our members to carry out those changes, and arming them with the tools, information and resources to do so.

Our main commitment has been to deliver the goals of Ad Net Zero – the commitment of advertising to reach real net zero by the end of 2030 – through promoting and executing its five-point action plan.

We’ve held the consistent view that an advertiser shouldn’t be making decisions about what is and isn’t harmful content. It’s up to the platforms, in conjunction with government and regulators, to set appropriate policies.

A number of ISBA members are heavily involved. At the Ad Net Zero Global Summit this month, which took place alongside Cop26, brands including Mastercard, PepsiCo, Unilever and Sky spoke about the work they are doing to achieve zero carbon emissions from their advertising activity.

One of the most important actions for brands under Ad Net Zero is AdGreen, which seeks to unite the industry behind the goal of eliminating the negative environmental impacts of ad production. The AdGreen Levy is a small percentage charge on production costs, which is helping to fund free tools and resources for brands – including, most recently, the Carbon Calculator, which allows advertisers to see their impact at a granular level, campaign by campaign, and make informed decisions about how to cut emissions.

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In my view, it is absolutely vital that brands sign up to the levy, and to ensure that they talk to their agencies about their involvement.

Although many of our members are closely engaged, we have yet to see the scale of commitment to the levy we would hope for. Quite frankly, this needs to change. We continue to call on our members – and indeed on all brands producing advertising in the UK – to sign up and make that commitment.

Taking action on this isn’t and can’t be an optional extra. Of course, it’s essential for every sector of the economy to play its part if we’re to achieve what is a massive lift for the whole of society. But it’s also a matter of trust.

The people who work in advertising – who put together the campaigns, believe in the products and want to be part of a sustainable industry – expect their employers to be on the right side of history. Meanwhile, the audiences to whom we market goods and services need to see that when it comes to climate change, we get it.

It’s the only way that we will have licence to speak out on the environment, and encourage people to change their behaviour.

Stop misinformation

It’s for that reason that we should also be focused on disinformation and misinformation about the climate. This is a challenge for all industry participants.

Platforms should have policies that prevent advertising promoting climate disinformation and misinformation from appearing on their sites. Equally, monetisation policies which prevent those who post disinformation from benefitting financially should be implemented.

Such policies also prevent the content from unintentionally being given credibility by its juxtaposition with major advertisers. Big brand ads can equal endorsement in the eyes of some – accidentally reinforcing the information they’re consuming.

It’s been good to see Google move on this after consultation with the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN).Virgin Media O2, British Gas and Sky demand world leaders tackle climate misinformation

The issue of whether advertisers can or should dictate content policies is far more complex – especially when there is no universal definition of what constitutes climate disinformation and misinformation.

We’ve held the consistent view that an advertiser shouldn’t be makingad decisions about what is and isn’t harmful content. It’s up to the platforms, in conjunction with government and regulators, to set appropriate policies. Once those policies are set, advertisers should know what they are and that they are being enforced and reported on. Only when brands have this information can they make a truly informed choice about their advertising investments, in line with their own internal policies.

This isn’t to say, of course, that advertising can’t take a stand. The self-regulatory system is responding, with the CMA producing guidance on green claims in ads; and the ASA underway with a project of ensuring that its rules on climate change and sustainability are fit for the future.

Boycotts are not the answer

More problematic are the high-profile campaigns, which call for agencies to boycott certain sectors, or for ads for certain products to be banned.

The problem with bans and boycotts is they do not take us where we need to go: a sustainable future with a growing economy and greener products. Many of our members, including in those sectors which historically have had a high-carbon impact, are on this journey – transforming their operations, reusing existing creatives, and decarbonising their business and value chains. In many instances, agencies themselves are helping their clients with this work.

We need to see more of this from brands, not less. Advertising has the power to change behaviour for the good and, while a boycott or ban might make for good headlines, they aren’t going to achieve that common goal.

It is the hard yards of looking in the round at business operations, making the tough calls and placing the climate at the centre of business decisions that will make the real difference.

We cannot get where we need to go without the full backing of business in general, and advertisers in particular.

It is only by working meaningfully and constructively together that we will truly be able to tackle the climate crisis – and ensure a sustainable future for us all.

Phil Smith, director general at ISBA



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