How advertising can accelerate a sustainable economy – PoliticsHome

How advertising can accelerate a sustainable economy – PoliticsHome

How advertising can accelerate a sustainable economy

Credit: Bronac McNeill

Matt Bourn, Director of Communications

Our industry, worth some £37Bn in ad spend in 2023, is well aware of the UK economy’s need to grow, and the need to increase productivity in order to support jobs, help people through the cost-of-living pressures and secure a quality of life through fair incomes and rewards.

At the same time, we are increasingly aware of the realities of climate change, and the human cost of more regular extreme weather events. We need to ensure that when economic growth comes, it is responsible growth, growth that supports a sustainable future.

Advertising campaigns carrying imagery of climate change devastation won’t bring about the change we’re looking for. We will see those images and stories in the news, and that’s where they are most powerful. The role of advertising running alongside those stories is to show the sustainable solutions which are being developed in every part of our economy.

Advertising will play a critical role in helping communicate things needed to build a sustainable economy and help reach the UK’s net zero targets. For anyone thinking about how this can be achieved in the most rapid way possible, the advertising industry should be front-of-mind. We can help other industries and the public make the shifts to more sustainable choices. For example, we can help normalise behaviours that the government requires, such as encouraging consumers to switch to smart meters or energy saving devices. 

The government campaign (and the support from the advertising industry) at the outset of the Covid pandemic changed the daily routine of the UK population in just a matter of days. If you’d have told me that this was possible beforehand, I would have dismissed you as delusional. Yet, it happened. If you want evidence the advertising industry can play a fundamental role in behaviour change, look no further than what happened in March 2020. This wasn’t unique to the UK either. It happened around the world and saved many lives in the process.

There’s a lesson here. The government became the UK’s number one advertiser during that period. The Advertising Association produced a report studying the impact of the pandemic on ad spend and one of the biggest findings was about the role of government advertising, which stepped forward to show leadership with life-saving messages. Advertisers, agencies, and media owners helped take that messaging and normalise it through their own communications campaigns and, by doing so, backed the government’s efforts to stay safe, to get vaccinated and so forth.

That advertising must be what all great advertising always is: empathetic,  humorous, and thought-provoking; aspirational, useful and supportive of objectives that support jobs and help people live their lives. More citizens making more sustainable choices won’t be the result of one big, amazing campaign. It will be solved by countless campaigns by hundreds of thousands of brands one choice at a time. Those campaigns will be created by advertising and marketing professionals, all striving for better.

Our objective is for every single pound of our industry’s £37Bn ad spend to be directed towards campaigns which are in service of a sustainable economy. Imagine how powerful that can be.

We are driving positive action through the Ad Net Zero initiative, a 5-point action plan with tools and training to equip the ad industry with everything it needs to deliver this vision. Ad Net Zero originated in the UK but is now a global initiative, backed by many of the world’s largest advertising organisations, with growing chapters in the US, Ireland, and New Zealand, and more to come this year. Alongside this, our self-regulatory body, the Advertising Standards Authority is regularly reviewing and updating guidance on how to make environmental claims in advertising that are legal, decent, honest, and truthful.

To accelerate the ambitions, we are running a unique awards scheme in our industry in partnership with our trade media title, Campaign. The 2023 Grand Prix winner, ITV, for its work with eBay to promote pre-loved fashion, was awarded by a special panel made up of Baroness Parminter, Kerry McCarthy MP and Chris Skidmore.

Our goal is to increase exponentially the volume of campaigns supporting a sustainable product, service, or behaviour. These campaigns need to be as effective and appealing as possible, delivering changes in behaviour at scale. All to decar­bonise the economy, support regenerative nature, and reduce waste for the true benefit of all citizens. To do this, there need to be shifts such as from fossil fuels to renewable energy, from single use and disposable products to longer-lasting biodegradable and repairable ones, or to a higher proportion of plant-based food. Advertising has the proven power to create such a shift in behaviours, moving customers from one type of product or service to another.

There is a fundamental shift taking place at the heart of advertising. The best work that our industry is now producing is no longer solely focused on achieving the best sales, but also achieving better results for the planet and its people. We are a long way off every ad serving this purpose, but the target is clear and an increasing number of people in our industry are focusing on making this happen.


Sustainable Advertising: How Advertising Can Support A Better Future by Matt Bourn and Sebastian Munden (Chair, Ad Net Zero) is out on March 3 and is available to pre-order via Kogan Page. Please get in touch with communications@adassoc.org.uk if you are in a parliamentary office and wish to be sent a copy.

Testimonials include:

Dame Carolyn McCall DBE, Chief Executive, ITV

“Advertising has a powerful influence on how people behave and this is as relevant to climate action as it is to consumer trends. This book tells us everything we need to know to make climate action happen.”

Toby Park, Head of Energy and Sustainability, The Behaviour Insights Team, UK

“We’re saturated with advertising day-in, day-out, and it has long been a force for excessive consumption. This book provides a much-needed review for the industry, shining a light on the marketing techniques and behavioural science theory and evidence we can all use to promote greener consumption. It’s a very welcome call to action for all advertisers with a green conscience.”

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