Media: Behind the Hype - St Luke's leads industry charge to save the planet

Can one ad agency hope to have any impact on global warming?

St Luke's has made the first carbon-neutral ad. A cause for some congratulation, you might think, yet our calls on the subject met with derisive laughter. "What an utter pile of wank," was one of the stronger responses.

"At least St Luke's is trying," was the most anybody could muster on its behalf.

This follows St Luke's bid to demonstrate corporate responsibility by working with the environmental business Future Forests to neutralise the global-warming impact of making TV ads.

St Luke's is apparently using something called the "Carbon Calculator" to achieve this. Phil Teer, the joint managing director of St Luke's, explains: "The climatic impact of making an ad is measured from the amount of travelling to the amount of energy used from pre- to post-production.

This is translated into a figure, and money for the amount of trees or green initiatives necessary to neutralise the amount of carbon dioxide used is donated."

The agency has been "carbon neutral" for the past four years, though it draws the line at planting a tree every time one of its staff passes wind. It is now involving its clients too, with BT becoming the first to come on board. At a cost of £3,500, BT is backing the planting of hundreds of mango trees in Southern India and can proudly claim that the making of its "more power to you" brand campaign had no negative effect on the environment.

"I thought St Luke's had grown out of this sort of thing," one industry source said. However, Teer denies being a hippy or a tree hugger, saying: "It's just about being sensible. It's like looking after your body. If you put bad food in it then you go to the gym, and, in principle, this is the same thing."

Certainly, global warming and CO2 emissions are an important issue and even Hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon with the director Roland Emmerich launching the first carbon-neutral film with The Day After Tomorrow.

Governments worldwide have pledged to slash their country's carbon dioxide levels. In context, however, advertising is responsible for an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions, accounting for 1.6 per cent of the UK's total emissions (estimated at 152.5 million tonnes in 2003).

The advertising giant WPP says in its annual report that its actions have "only a small environmental impact" and it puts only £1.2 million of its £12.3 million corporate responsibility budget into environmental issues.

This begs the question of how much the St Luke's campaign will actually achieve.

But, however small the benefits from the scheme, Jonathan Mildenhall, the managing director of TBWA\London, believes the St Luke's project is admirable. "There is not enough done in business to address major environmental issues and if we can do anything to redress the balance, then it's worthwhile," he says.

Another industry source is not so sure that the whole thing is quite so worthy. "It needs to be done consistently by a huge organisation to make any marked difference. If St Luke's was doing it for all their advertisers it might be different but this smacks of tokenism," he says.

And BT could be accused of headline grabbing - of taking the moral high ground to enhance its appeal to consumers.

Critics suggest that BT's involvement could backfire. "What about the millions of brochures BT prints? Are they carbon neutral?" one observer asks.

Until St Luke's starts making carbon-neutral ads across the board and BT commits its entire business to the cause, it seems certain that other agencies will chortle at the suggestion that they should also plough their budgets into what, at present, is rather a half-hearted attempt to save the planet.

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