Disaster or salvation?

February 05, 2024

Our CEO Rik Ledder discusses the dual role of advertising in the climate issue

Last month, the research report on 'advertising emissions' was published. It focused on the responsibility that we, as an industry, feel for emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from increased sales due to advertising. A large majority of decision-makers at media agencies, production agencies, advertising agencies, and media owners expressed the value of scrutinizing advertising emissions.

However, in the (online) discussion that followed this publication, it quickly became apparent that not everyone agrees on this. For me, this raised the question: is our profession contributing to the climate problem or is it actually playing a role in its solution?

The Defendants' Bench

Advertising (and its makers) are constantly in the defendants' bench. After all, we influence consumer buying behavior, resulting in unnecessary purchases, particularly of products that contribute to unsustainable growth. Worse yet, advertising contributes to greenwashing polluting products or companies.

And it's not just the campaigns themselves that have a negative influence. The production process also has a detrimental impact on our environment, as there may have been flights for photoshoots, and the prints that have been distributed. Successful, polluting campaigns also allow clients to accumulate more capital to continue their polluting business models. It's almost tempting to leave the profession because of it. It's not a coincidence that nearly a hundred agencies have joined Reclame Fossielvrij (a Dutch fossil-free advertising initiative).

Is it enough?

As an industry, you can turn a blind eye. As an individual, you can leave the profession behind. As someone who makes ads, you can focus on brands that only do good. But is that enough? Perhaps we are leaving the potential of our profession untapped. Advertising has proven itself as a skill to influence consumer behavior. In countries like the Netherlands, where we are relatively affluent, it has been demonstrated that influencing behavior can lead to a substantial reduction in household carbon footprints. What a fantastic opportunity!

Green Advertising

Apart from a number of initiatives aimed at ensuring that the industry eventually operates at net-zero and makes more sustainable media choices, I believe that real impact will be made by helping consumers make more environmentally friendly choices. Also known as: Green Advertising. Forms of honest communication that focus on products that make a positive contribution to the world, and in return, receive more sympathy from consumers. But also making an impact by unconsciously encouraging consumers to make more responsible purchases.

Every day a little better

Green Advertising comes in many forms. The purist approach, but also ways that are at least a step in the right direction: every day a little better. Clearly 'beyond greenwashing,' perhaps not ideal yet, but every step in the right direction helps. Each variant has its own rules of the game, of course. The way in which more activist brands and agencies develop their campaigns is different from market leaders who may be less outspoken but can have a significant impact in their own way. We’re almost at a point where we can measure true advertising impact of these beautiful forms of communication. And that currency will become more valuable to clients, politics, advocacy groups, and ultimately consumers.

The strength of our profession

And that’s the strength of our profession. If we practice our profession with the same goal in mind, a healthy and responsible world, every step in that direction matters. Getting everyone to eat two days less meat per week may have more impact than increasing the number of vegetarians by 25%. And if we do it together in a responsible way, we prevent a vocal minority from taking control and creating irresponsible regulations that only lead to unclear enforcement and ultimately undermine what really matters: using the massive budgets of the wonderful brands we work for to make the world a little better.

Let's all take a step in the right direction, collectively. Either in a purist sense or at least by being better than yesterday. With respect for each other's choices and as long as we embrace the same long-term goal. This way, we harness the power of our profession and are seen as saviors rather than culprits at social gatherings and in pubs.