Should marketing spend be carbon-neutral?

Renewable-energy company Ovo says it wants its marketing to be carbon-neutral. Should adland follow suit?

Climate change: is it time for marketing to be carbon neutral?
Climate change: is it time for marketing to be carbon neutral?

The advertising industry is better known for long lunches, trips to Cannes and lavish client dinners than it is for being sustainable. But in an age of climate emergency, some are recognising that it’s high time agencies and their clients took more decisive action to curb climate change.

In June, at the height of the Extinction Rebellion protests when swathes of London were forced to grind to a halt, 60 top industry leaders signed an open letter acknowledging that advertisers had been at times complicit in exacerbating the climate crisis and, in a symbolic act, they pledged to tackle climate change together. 

The industry might have woken up to the crisis, but what it will collectively do to drive meaningful change remains to be seen. Ovo Energy, meanwhile, has leapfrogged adland to announce it is making changes to make its marketing more sustainable, requiring its agencies to follow suit and comply with its new policies. 

This week, the renewable-energy company's new brand director announced efforts to make its marketing carbon-neutral by cutting unnecessary air travel, ditching out-of-home print advertising in favour of digital only (powered by renewable energy or offset where unavailable), ending door drops and offsetting any corresponding carbon footprint arising from earned print media coverage via The Carbon Trust. It's far from a silver bullet, but it's a start.

The changes are also not so radical that they couldn't be replicated across the board at a time of increased focus on what brands – and their suppliers at large – are doing to help ensure we all have a habitable climate for the long term.  

So, what does adland think – is it time to make marketing carbon-neutral?

Jim Moffatt

Chief executive, Engine UK

In telling the world that its advertising will be carbon-neutral, the Ovo marketing team have pulled off a neat trick. They get free advertising without doing a thing to harm the environment. So good on them. Is it a bit of a gimmick? Is marketing spend the worst thing most companies have to worry about when looking at their carbon footprint? Not necessarily.

But it all helps. And if marketing isn't the guardian of a company’s social purpose, then who is? If we combine that with a commitment to limit the bombardment of invasive crap advertising, whether it’s paper or digital, so much the better. Pollution can take many forms…

Ruth Wright

Editor-in-chief, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO; Extinction Rebellion 

We are way past the point of being able to use carbon offsetting as a "get out of jail free" card. We are in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency. Act like it. Don’t spend the carbon in the first place. AdGreen is full of brilliant advice on how to do this.

Your retainer has already been spent. Everything you do now is an incremental cost. Except your retainer is humanity’s carbon budget. And the incremental cost is the lives of your children or future children. Think of all of your work through that lens and you’ll be on the right path.

Steven Bennett-Day

Founder, Few & Far

We’re in a well-publicised and scientifically verified climate emergency, so if we don’t have a post-carbon economy somewhere between 2025-2050, marketing is fucked. As a relatively affluent industry, marketing can carbon-offset its way out. For now. Better than nothing, but as a way to achieving neutrality it avoids any behaviour change. 

Every industry needs to be more savvy and question its use of resources; marketing is no different. In fact, it’s worse because our role is to sell more stuff, the knock-on effect of which will add to the problem.

It’s time to do something practical; stop travelling, forget impressive empty receptions and use the space for something more valuable, embrace remote working, share resources with others, buy energy from renewables, sign up to 1% For The Planet. Lastly, marketing wields great influence – if we’re going to use it to sell more stuff, let’s think about what we’re helping to sell more of.

Henry Daglish

Founder, Bountiful Cow

Yes, in everything that we do we should try to balance the impact on the environment. Marketing has to work hardest at delivering business growth and can potentially create a conflict with the environment. It’s about adopting an "every little helps" approach first – the sum of the parts will create the biggest combined effect as opposed to creating a handful of eco-marketing warriors. 

We should all be working together and do one bit at a time as we can all make a difference. Our own ‘Cowbon Offset’ programme [which gives clients the option to pay to offset the carbon cost of their marketing] being a classic small example.

Kate Howe

Executive director, creative, commerce and customer experience, Dentsu Aegis Network UK and Ireland

To reduce our carbon emissions or not to reduce them shouldn’t even be a debate, it’s how you do it that is a more interesting conversation. Broadly, Ovo Energy’s approach sounds good, reducing emissions first and then offsetting what can’t be reduced, or reduced any further, and I can’t think of a single reason why all brands shouldn’t take this approach.

My question for a purpose-driven brand like Ovo, with green energy at its heart, is whether simply offsetting is enough, or whether it should be offsetting carbon-intensive activities multiple times over so that it doesn’t just stop its carbon footprint from rising but actually makes it fall.

Mike Lordan

Director of external affairs, Data & Marketing Association

Preserving our natural environment is a dilemma that demands our attention and requires our industry to work towards carbon-neutral, sustainable solutions. DMA research paints a picture of the print industry becoming more environmentally aware and significant progress has already been made. In fact, the majority of advertising mail is printed on recycled paper. According to research recently published by Two Sides, paper and card have a recycling rate of 83%.

The paper industry’s support of responsible forestry practices, use of renewable, carbon-neutral biofuels and advances in efficient paper-making technology have made a significant contribution to sustainability in recent years.

The DMA’s Print Council aims to educate and establish best practice in the paper-based marketing industry. Over the past decade, wastage has been reduced significantly as a result of improved campaign planning, data management, segmentation, digital printing techniques and programmatic print. The ongoing efforts of the print council provide our community with advice and solutions to ensure progress will continue to be made.

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