By Grace Kite and Jonathan Wise

Advertising adds 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK

That’s the finding of new research by Purpose Disruptors and magic numbers launching at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. It’s 186m tonnes of greenhouse gases, equivalent to running 47 coal-fired power plants all year round.

It’s important because the window available to keep us within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial temperatures is closing. People with the power to make the necessary changes have to get on with it.

And UK advertising does have power.

Our research confirms that advertising plays a significant positive role in the UK economy. We estimate that nearly £90bn worth of products were sold because of advertising in 2019 – that’s a full 4% of GDP, or c.£6.30 worth of economic activity per £1 spent on advertising.

But there are knock-on effects for global warming. Incremental sales mean that advertisers make more products and services, and their suppliers make more, and their suppliers too. At every stage, this leads to more emissions of greenhouse gases.

Once all of those global impacts are added up, the total is equivalent to all emissions coming out of the Netherlands, and twice the total from Greece.

And there are things that advertising people can do – set out below. It’s not about telling clients they shouldn’t grow. Instead, its about engineering demand to support the green transformations that our clients and their shareholders know they need.

A new metric – Advertised emissions

If what gets measured gets managed, getting the action right starts with getting the measurement right. But up until now, there hasn’t been a measure of the climate impact of additional sales generated by advertising.

So far, advertising and media agencies have only been thinking about the emissions that arise from them having ideas, making plans, creating copies, and then airing ads on TV or printing them in newspapers. Reducing these is a good first step, and WPP, Dentsu, IPG, Publicis, and Havas all have commitments in place.

But ‘Advertised Emissions’ – the emissions that arise from additional sales generated by advertising – dwarf other types of emissions from advertising. Our estimate shows that in 2019 they were 186 times bigger than operational emissions from advertising agencies and similar businesses (at only 1m tonnes).

The diagram below shows how we calculated Advertised Emissions:

First, we collected data on advertising spend in 19 UK sectors . Then we applied average revenue returned per £1 spent on advertising to produce an estimate of the value created for businesses in each of the 19 sectors.

The revenue per £1 spent figures come from magic numbers’ ARC database, which includes in-depth econometric evaluations of more than 340 brands between 2016 and 2020. That’s £5bn worth of UK advertising spend. Unlike other similar databases, ARC includes everyday unawarded campaigns, which means its estimates are a more accurate reflection of the mass of UK advertisers.

The next step was to assess the full extent of additional economic activity and emissions associated with this additional demand. We carried out environmentally extended input-output modelling using a database that captures trade flows between industries around the world. This was combined with carbon intensities from the same database and from the UK government’s statistics.

The method is useful right now to help establish the size of the problem, but it’s also the first step in a scheme of work that aims to put an Advertised Emissions calculator on the desk of every marketer in the world.

What UK advertisers and marketers can do

The chart below shows what happens if previous trends in advertising spend re-establish after Covid, and if there is no improvement in the overall carbon intensity of what is advertised.

In this scenario Advertised Emissions will be more than 270m tonnes by 2030, with most emissions coming from the categories that spend a lot on advertising, enjoy a strong return on investment, and have carbon intensive production and supply chains:
● Retail (from supermarkets to high street chains)
● Technology and electronics
● Transport and tourism
● Leisure and entertainment

In all categories, but especially those listed above, marketers need to do four things:

First, help our clients transition to cleaner production processes and supply chains by engineering the demand for the products they produce. A great example of this type of campaign is P&G’s Ariel ‘Turn to 30°’ campaign, which helped cut 58,000 tonnes of CO2e by educating consumers to save energy .

Second, accelerate acceptance and adoption of new models where products are used for longer before being disposed of. This means promoting initiatives like IKEA’s ‘buy back and resell’ service .

Third, support, promote, and energise low or zero-carbon brands and industries whose business model is geared to serving a 1.5-degree world. This means supporting brands like Quorn who recently saved 3.8m kg of emissions by encouraging a switch away from meat .

And finally, there are some rare brands and sectors whose production is high-carbon with no hope of transitioning to a cleaner production process. Marketers and the advertising industry together need to reduce or even remove spending that supports these businesses.

Purpose Disruptors have set out a process where advertising businesses can measure their advertised emissions now to establish a baseline, and in future years see progress. It’s all set out in a more detailed report which will be available from 10am Tuesday 9th November here and was also explained to policy-makers at COP26.

Now is the right time. Because of Covid-19 the UK advertising industry has recently demonstrated a capability to change a lot in a short period of time. Covid upended modes of working and living for advertising people, and it radically changed ways of communicating and selling.

It is important, and possible, for a choice to be made that the new normal is one that produces a lot less greenhouse gases.

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