Marketers are in pole position to shape consumer demand for sustainability

Creating a lower carbon alternative is one thing, but brands still need to get people to choose it, and marketing and advertising has the opportunity to be the driving force in helping people make the transition.

UK advertising generates the same emissions as running 47 coal-fired power stations every year.

That’s a key finding from new research launching at an event for policymakers at Cop26. The research, by Purpose Disruptors and magic numbers, estimates the emissions that result from the uplift in sales generated by advertising, which we call ‘advertised emissions’.

For 2019 it comes out at 186 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. That’s the same as adding an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK. It’s 186 times bigger than the operational footprint of the UK’s advertising agencies.

And without deliberate action, the number is only going to go up.

Source: magic numbers calculations based on data from WARC, ARC, ONS, EXIOBASE, Ricardo, Greenpeace, WWF, and DVLA.


In the chart, the turquoise line at the top shows what happens if previous trends in advertising re-establish after Covid. The green line is what has to happen to keep global temperatures within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial temperatures.

Virgin Media O2, British Gas and Sky demand world leaders tackle climate misinformation

How can marketers reduce advertised emissions?

Advertising and media agencies have made a good start by reducing the carbon footprint of their offices and production processes. But, as engineers of demand, the greatest contribution marketers can make is to accelerate the acceptance and adoption of low-emission alternatives.

Source: Purpose Disruptors.

To achieve that, we need to treat different brands differently.

In the chart, green brands are those that already have low or zero carbon emissions. For example, a campaign by Quorn which encouraged a switch away from meat saved 3.8 million kilograms of emissions, according to research by the Carbon Trust. We need more and bigger campaigns like this.

Amber brands are more common and at the moment spend a higher amount on advertising. They are established brands and industries that can transition to lower-carbon alternatives, like car companies as they shift to electric vehicles and supermarkets that promote plant-based alternatives to red meat. This is where advertising spend, creative energy and the best talent can have the biggest impact.

Trillions of dollars have been spent on reinventing the supply side, improving production processes. Now the demand side has to catch up. People need to want the lower carbon versions.

For amber brands, the task is to engineer demand so that customers want the lower carbon versions. There are a wide range of actions we can take. At one end of the scale, Ikea reduced the emissions associated with disposal of its products by advertising its ‘buy back and resell’ service. But there are a lot of smaller actions too, like featuring fully occupied cars in ads rather than empty ones.

Red brands are high carbon brands and industries with little opportunity to transition towards low carbon alternatives. These include fossil fuel companies, airlines and long-haul holiday destinations. Marketers, along with regulators and government, need to reduce spend, energy and efforts on red brands.

This won’t undermine our businesses, rather it’s about preparing us for the future.

A reduction in environmentally harmful advertising will not necessarily lead to a reduction in income for our businesses or for advertising and media agencies.

Businesses will have to engage with the realities of climate change. Carbon taxes are already with us and likely to expand, fossil fuel resources are becoming expensive. Shareholders and boards demand ESG compliance.

Marketing and advertising that follows the plan above will be aligned with the strategic priorities of the businesses we serve. It will enhance marketing’s importance in the board room.

More important still, it will set our businesses up to succeed now and in the future by building brands that are known for doing the necessary thing.

In purposefully reducing consumption-related emissions, marketing and advertising has the opportunity to reinvent itself and increase its relevance and profitability. What a statement it would be if, in years to come, we could demonstrate that it was marketers’ talents that drove the transition we as a species need.

And it is important right now. Trillions of dollars have been spent on reinventing the supply side, improving production processes. Now the demand side has to catch up. People need to want the lower carbon versions.

‘Sustainability is a journey’: Marketers on their mission to go green

Making the right choice

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

As people working in advertising, our ability is to drive demand. That is not in question.

The question is: What are we going to use that ability for?

What are you going to choose in this decisive decade on climate?

The invitation is to cross the threshold of responsibility and tackle advertised emissions. For us all to use our skills and experience, in creativity and commerciality, to help reshape society towards a more sustainable future.

The Advertised Emissions report launches at 10am today (9 November). The full report will be available from the Purpose Disruptors website at the same time.



    Leave a comment