Cleaning Up the Ad Industry: 6 Real Ways to Limit the Toxic Waste of Creativity

We're solving all the world's problems—except this one

Advertising loves an award show. And whether you think they're a critical component of the creative process or a total racket, you can't argue with the fact that they're a pretty good barometer for the state of the industry. This year, I've judged three of them. And while, most of the time, I come out feeling inspired and jealous, the thing that increasingly sticks with me after judging is the waste. We're a really wasteful industry. 

Last week, I saw a case study about an airline that flew 350 authentic New York pizzas to New Yorkers who had moved to L.A. The case study bragged, "6 PLANES! 20 PILOTS! 30 TRUCKS!" and I had a silent, carbon-induced panic attack. 

In 2018, the United Nations released a report claiming we have 12 years to halve our global emissions or we will face devastating and irreversible climate change. And not the adorable, orphaned-polar-bear kind. The whole-countries-sink-into-the-ocean kind. 

Every year, we solve all the world's problems by the Cannes deadline in May. Yet we never grapple with the fact that we're actively contributing ridiculous amounts of pollution to the atmosphere every day. So, in the spirit of creativity, here are a few ideas about how we can be less terrible: 

First, clean up your own house. 

• Ask where your agency's building gets its energy from. If it's not from solar or wind, change your plan. Over 600 utilities across the U.S. offer customers the option to choose renewable energy. 
• Give employees reusable water bottles and coffee thermoses when they get hired. Put your agency logo on them—earned media! 
• Invest in real plates and cutlery. Avoid plastic. Break up with styrofoam.
• Invest in communal canvas bags so when people run out to grab lunch they don't need to bring back plastic ones. 
• Compost. It's easy and it doesn't smell if you take it out daily, which, if you're not gross, you already do with the trash anyway. 
• Ask employees to turn off their desktops and laptops at night. It rests the hardware, wastes significantly less energy and is good for people's brains.

Only fly when absolutely necessary. 

• Question the frequency and necessity of in-person meetings. There's a wealth of great technology available for us to chat with out-of-town clients. Do you really need to fly across the country for a 45-minute brainstorm about your TikTok strategy? 
• Think about how many people actually have to attend a shoot. Encourage clients to do the same. This isn't just good for the environment; it's good for the work—fewer cooks in the kitchen equals tastier creative treats.
• Rethink your relationship with award shows and conferences. Pick a couple to attend each year and pass on the rest. Your agency will not collapse if you're not at CES. 
• Make a carbon budget. Map out your projected assignments for the year, then calculate the minimum amount you would need to travel based on previous years' activities. Then halve that. I promise you won't miss the DoubleTree in Kansas City. 

Don't make work that uses egregious resources.

• You don't need to build a life-size plastic sculpture of a sneaker. There's no need to send a rocket full of flaming cheese puffs to space. These ideas are literally killing people. Just don't present them, OK? 

Interrogate and influence your clients' operations.

• "Organic growth" is one of the hottest buzzwords of our time. Agencies want more of clients' businesses, and businesses want agencies to think beyond advertising. One of those verticals can be raw materials. If you have a bottled water client, bring them an idea to use 100 percent compostable bottles. If you work with a packaged goods company, find a business reason for them to move away from single-use plastics. One of the most innovative brands of the last few years is Rothy's, which makes shoes with 100 percent recycled water bottles. They made $140 million in 2018. Sustainability and profit are not mutually exclusive. 
• Same thing for manufacturing and shipping. Is your client making everything in a coal-powered factory overseas and shipping it to America? Dig into those decisions and find creative reasons for them to change. There are plenty of case studies about companies that took a long view, invested in initially more expensive methods of sustainable operations and dramatically lowered costs and increased productivity. 

Make stuff that actively addresses the issue.

• Here's a terrifying fact: In order to survive, we need to figure out how to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on a global scale. A livable future hangs on technology that doesn't exist yet. Advertising is home to so many smart, innovative people. Next time you want to win a statue, consider coming up with ideas that have real environmental impacts, like this CO₂-based shoe Droga5 made for NRG. 

Quit advertising.

• Wow, this took a turn, huh? I haven't managed this one yet, but I grapple with it on a daily basis. I love this job—the sitting around and thinking up nonsense, the director searches, the celebrity shoots, the making of beautiful, crazy and wonderful things. But in order to enjoy it, I have to partake in a superhuman level of cognitive dissonance. Because in reality, we exist to fuel a cycle of never-ending growth that is unsustainable for ourselves and the planet. We've convinced the world that people are brands, corporations are people and material possessions are what give humans value. If you aren't consuming, you don't exist. And thanks to us, very soon, we might not.

Of course, ultimately, there's a limit to what our individual actions can do to solve the climate crisis. We live in a capitalist society, and dropping out to live as carbon-free recluses is not going to change that. We need our leaders to take drastic action that matches the scale of the problem and transforms our society. But until then, we can try to limit the toxic waste of creativity and use our cultural influence to change the conversation. We might even get some good case studies out of it, too.

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Casey Rand
Casey Rand is executive creative director at Droga5.