Tapping the ad industry’s power for climate action

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

Advertising is not usually seen as a priority industry for broader climate action. With advertising operational emissions responsible for less than 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, there seem to be bigger fish to fry — such as circularity and other issues. Yet the advertising industry has a superpower that the climate community lacks: the ability to change behavior and shape demand.

After working with leaders in the advertising industry to address operation emissions, I was surprised by the general lack of understanding of climate issues — perhaps in part due to the dramatic shift from physical forms of advertising to digital giving the impression that the operations were inherently "clean."

In the last two years, the advertising industry started to realize that there are considerable impacts from the energy needed to drive the digital ads that have become even more ubiquitous and intense than traditional advertising. The initial response from their industry associations was to form organizations such as Ad Net Zero — which I now advise — to develop action plans, including the creation of standards to estimate and report emissions. What has been missing until very recently is building on the vast experience of the climate community.

Here are some ways the advertising industry can be tapped to advance climate action: 

Connecting advertising to climate best practices 

While we are still at the beginning of this pivot to connect climate action in advertising to existing global standards and best practices, there is a strong start:

  • The Ad Net Zero Action Plan addresses greenhouse gas emissions inventories for organizations and ad campaign-level impacts (following life-cycle accounting principles), and working groups have been formed to create standards and guidelines;
  • Other industry organizations such as the World Federation of Advertisers, IAB Technology Laboratory, the Association of National Advertisers, Prebid and the American Association of Advertising Agencies are supporting this initiative and developing complementary guidance;
  • OpenX, a client of mine, has demonstrated how quickly the ad sector can move by becoming not just the first carbon neutral company in the industry but the first company in the world to meet the Science Based Technology initiative (SBTi) Net-Zero Standard.

Even with many key industry associations committing to moving forward on educating their members and providing detailed guidance on how to quantify, reduce and offset their emissions, coordination across all of these organizations is a challenge. Furthermore, these efforts have been primarily focused on Europe and North America, with still a lot of work to do to engage other important geographies.

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