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A Climate of Change

David Nicholson

Ad Net Zero is a climate action program created by multiple advertising trade associations, beginning with the UK’s Ad Association and then bolstered by support from the IPA, ISBA, 4A’s, ANA and IAB, along with global ad holding companies and brands. Ad Net Zero’s mission is to help the advertising industry tackle the climate emergency by decarbonizing advertising operations, which are part of advertisers’ supply chains, and supporting every industry to promote sustainable products and services. 
David Nicholson spoke to Rachel about the current state and the challenges ahead.

Key takeaways:

  • The role of advertising in tackling climate change
  • How to persuade business leaders to take action
  • The virtuous circle of sustainability and performance
  • Why businesses can benefit from sustainable practices
  • How AI can deliver sustainable results

For Rachel Schnorr, the marketing and advertising industry is an important player in the fight against climate change, holding two important keys. The first, and typically overlooked, is that advertising is responsible for 2-3 percent of global carbon (CO2) emissions. Thus, the decisions advertisers make – from travel and events to creative production to media buying -- can make a real difference in reducing their carbon footprint. The second element is the area of communication—the positive influence advertisers can have on the remaining 97 percent of emissions through their work. “Advertisers drive demand and shape consumption habits, so that’s why it is such a critical component in emissions reduction - to turn the ship toward more sustainable consumerism,” she points out.

Tough challenges

But changing the mindsets and behaviours of both companies and consumers is a tough challenge. The first challenge is the emissions of the advertising industry itself. The US ad market is huge, with complexities that take time to change – from brands to agencies, publishers’ platforms and tech companies. Every company has ingrained processes, infrastructure and supply chains that all need to be rethought in the name of sustainable advertising, and that need to be measured.  

The good news is that many companies are starting to take climate change seriously and are setting net zero targets (a science based target which aligns to the Paris Climate Agreement of keeping warming at 1.5 Celsius and requires companies to reduce emissions by 90 percent from a baseline year, and then offset the remaining 10 percent). However, the not so good news is that action across the board is still moving too slowly. There are any number of obstacles in the way, including other business and economic concerns, difficulty knowing where to start, and doubt and cultural resistance to climate change and association with progressive policies.

“Numerous studies have found that while many of the largest corporations have set emissions reduction targets, when you scrutinise them and audit the results, the majority are falling well short of their targets thus far,” says Schnorr. 
“The United States is a particular challenge as such a huge country – it’s like several countries in one.” And when it comes to taking action within the advertising industry, the US is so critical because it represents 40 percent of the world’s ad spend.

A marketing mission

Convincing the industry to pay attention to the emissions coming from advertising, and to see the importance of getting their own house in order and adopt Ad Net Zero’s requirement of setting a science-based emissions target, is an advertising and marketing mission in itself. 
Schnorr is adept at spotting how ad executives will respond to different stimuli. She notes that pressure to change is coming from different directions at once. While some consumers advocate for positive change, and are becoming more vocal and informed about the importance of low carbon products and services, others react differently as sustainability and climate change have unfortunately gotten caught up in a political firestorm. 

Business leaders and investors who evaluate from a risk perspective fear backlash but also  must consider danger to their shareholdings from climate change threats. However, language matters and can help break through: “The concept of sustainability is less threatening than speaking specifically about ‘climate change’,” she notes. “It generally means good things. So there’s more widespread adoption of ‘sustainability’ strategies.”

The cascade effect

In the advertising world in particular, there are signs of progress. Companies are starting to realize they have to account for the scope 3 emissions that are generated from their advertising efforts as part of a truly holistic effort, and are also signing up for a coalition like Ad Net Zero to gain better understanding of this and accelerate progress. “We’re seeing an increasing number of big brands voluntarily creating science-based emission-reduction targets. They’re aware of what emissions result from their use of fuels or electricity, and how they have to care about the emissions of the companies they deal with up and down the value chain. There’s a cascade effect,” she argues.

This approach turns into a commercial advantage, as ad agencies and other partners can now demonstrate to clients how they’re putting their own houses in order and helping their clients keep their value chain emissions lower. What’s more, many sustainability solutions also improve overall performance and efficiency. 
The fundamental idea that sustainability and emissions reduction is part of a trade off with performance – you can have one or the other, but not both – is one that Schnorr tackles head on. “We have to debunk this myth,” she says. “At a basic level, if you reduce waste, that will save you money. And employees and consumers are more loyal to purposeful companies. Sustainability drives better performance. This is true both in business and in advertising.”

Ad Net Zero has researched the specific means by which agencies can reduce the emissions from digital media, from how ads are served to the work of ad tech companies. Companies like Adlook now incorporate sustainability measures into their decisions to eliminate multi-hop resellers for example.
“We ask questions like: ‘Do you always need to load all the content onto a page?’,” says Schnorr. “The internet is designed to have redundancies for protection, but the ad auctions can be simplified in many cases. In most cases, adopting these kinds of measures will result in cost savings and better ROI.”

AI’s sustainable results

As for how something like AI plays a role, it’s yet to be seen and there certainly can be some detrimental effects from increased digital load. However, emerging solutions like AI have the potential to help to deliver more sustainable results, she believes, partly because it can streamline operations to bring greater effectiveness and efficiency and partly through automating ad servers so that they avoid poorly-optimized sites. “It can accelerate progress,” says Schnorr.  

Part of the solution is to instil sustainability into industry conversations and into its culture. “Whether we’re talking about progress or what is good business performance or winning industry awards, we need to get sustainability talked about in the mainstream,” she insists.

Schnorr also emphasized the importance of showcasing sustainability through industry awards, events and thought leadership. Through working with industry partners such as Campaign Magazine in the UK and the Cannes Lions Awards, Ad Net Zero is spreading the message that emissions reductions should be part of the way in which excellence in advertising is judged. Based on Ad Net Zero’s advocacy, the Cannes Lions Awards introduced sustainability criteria to its 2023 festival. And initiatives such as #ChangetheBrief are educating strategists in agencies on how to turn every brief into an opportunity for greater sustainability.

Fundamental change

There is a growing understanding of the urgent need for climate action, as unprecedented wildfires, floods and storms kill hundreds more people than ever before and we experience unprecedented temperatures that continue to rise. The advertising industry can reduce its own carbon footprint, but it can also push for more fundamental change – within its own companies and by educating and inspiring consumers.

“We are operating well beyond the means of our planet,” argues Schnorr, pointing out that Earth Overshoot Day calculates that, globally, we use up the earth’s resources by midway through the year; in the United States, we reach this point by March of each year. “Regardless of which way you look at it, we need to commit to more drastic reductions in emissions before we are forced to do so when it’s too late”. 

Ad Net Zero has taken on a massive task, but thanks to Schnorr and her colleagues, there is growing awareness of the issues for the industry and a willingness to do something about it.
As she says: “We need to inspire consumers, companies and advertising professionals to change our habits and move forward in a more positive way, rather than our status quo that is extractive and pretends there are no limits.”

Rachel Schnorr is a leading proponent of holistic sustainabilityin advertising, previously heading up DEI operations at dentsu Americas and beginning Merkle Americas’ first ever Diversity and Inclusion Council. Her role is now USA Membership Director at Ad Net Zero.

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