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Without the full support of advertisers, we cannot tackle the climate crisis
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Without the full support of advertisers, we cannot tackle the climate crisis

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


Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time. 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 decision was 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 included sustainability in their corporate goals.

But sustainability of advertising activities was often not on the agenda. CMOs needed to be able to understand how they could understand the environmental impact of advertising and make positive changes.

We have been focusing on helping our members make those changes and providing them with the information, tools, and resources they need 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.

ISBA members play a significant role in this effort. The Ad Net Zero Global Summit, which was held this month alongside Cop26, saw brands such as Sky, PepsiCo Unilever, Sky, and Mastercard discuss the work they do to reduce carbon emissions through their advertising.

AdGreen is one of the most important initiatives for brands under Ad Net Zero. It aims to unify the industry around the goal of eliminating negative environmental effects 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.

I believe it is vital that brands sign up for the levy and that they speak to their agencies about their participation.

While many of our members are actively involved, we have not seen the level of commitment to the levies we would like. 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. Those who market goods and services to the public must see that we understand climate change.

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

Stop spreading misinformation

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

Platforms should have policies to prevent misinformation and advertising that promote climate disinformation from appearing on their websites. Monetisation policies that prevent disinformation-posters from receiving financial benefits should also be implemented.

These policies also prevent content from being given credibility by being positioned alongside 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. Advertisers need to know the contents of those policies, as well as how they are being enforced. Only then can brands make informed decisions about advertising investments.

This isn’t to say, of course, that advertising can’t take a stand. The self-regulatory system has responded with the CMA releasing guidance on green claims in advertising; and the ASA launching a project to ensure its rules on sustainability, climate change, and sustainability are appropriate for the future.

Boycotts are not the solution

High-profile campaigns that ask agencies to boycott certain sectors or ban ads for certain products are more problematic.

Bans and boycotts are not the best way to get us there. We need a sustainable future that has 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. This work is often done by agencies.

Brands need to do more of these things, 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 work of looking at business operations from a different perspective, making tough calls and putting the climate at the center of business decisions that will make a difference.

Without the full backing of advertisers and businesses in general, we can’t get where our needs are.

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 of ISBA


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