The Ad Industry Mustn't Abandon Sustainable Practices Learned in Lockdown

Why CO2e should be just another line in every project's budget

To call the past 18 months unprecedented would be an understatement. And yet as we look back at that period of time, and toward the future, we start to see some of the positive practices that the industry has adopted. The pandemic turned mere ideas and conversations into tangible realities, whereby we perfected the tech and techniques that have pushed our work to its creative bounds and beyond. We've also had to face some hard truths—a lot of the old ways of working weren't as sustainable as they could have been, there was too much unnecessary travel, and it all cost too much too—both in terms of budgets and the Earth.

With the Cop26 conference just ended and the world opening up to travel again (the U.S. began to accept tourists from the U.K. and the wider Schengen area on Nov. 8), now is the time to think about the lessons learned and habits broken, so the temptation to return to "normal" doesn't erode the progress made when it comes to choosing greener. The pandemic-induced lockdowns triggered close to an 8 percent reduction in environmental emissions compared to 2019, which is the current cited level of reduction in emissions needed to limit global warming to less than 1.5C.

With that in mind, we really can't afford to turn our backs on sustainable practices. The truth is that we're running out of time and resources, which, while morbid to think about, is also the way we need to be thinking now. I also believe we need to create better messaging around emissions, taking the concept from its current nebulous form and giving it legs, so that when we talk to each other and to clients, we can all clearly picture exactly what we mean.

The Advertising Association estimates that the average international location shoot generates over 100 tons of CO2e. Air travel, of course, makes up a large part of this number, but there's a lot more to an international production: hotels, energy consumption, food, travel to and from locations, plus the waste generated on the shoot. Can we really say this is all essential to getting the final ad? And at what cost?

The elephant in the room is that we all love to travel, and travel in the ad industry has often been seen as a glamorous perk of the job. The truth is that travel costs too much, with "cost" here meaning both cash and emissions. Our challenge right now, before the pull of "normality" overtakes, is to keep making choices that center sustainability where possible, questioning and evaluating proposed trips, choosing only the essential. It's a period of transition, both post-pandemic and into a more conscious way of thinking about carbon footprint when it comes to business. I'm hopeful that choosing less travel now will only make the trips we do take more meaningful; soon, we may not have to choose at all, as Airbus is on track to start building a commercial hydrogen-powered aircraft by the decade's end.

The industry is at a unique moment in time where budgets are being squeezed, the need to lower emissions is at an all-time high, and the technology to make the previously impossible happen in the studio is available, and the best it's ever been.

Don't just take my word for it. Last year, MPC and Travlrr, the sustainable remote production company, showed the industry the difference between a sustainable and a traditional shoot. We estimated that a traditional automotive ad, shot in Iceland, generates over 14 tons of CO2e gases, once all the ancillary elements of the shoot are added up, while an ad produced remotely and virtually generates just under 2 tons.

Overall, this translated to an 83 percent emission reduction, 33 percent speed reduction and 30 percent cost saving. The initiative offsets its emissions, too, to create ads that are carbon neutral. With hard data like this, we can't keep choosing options that take us further away from Ad Net Zero goals. Virtual production offers greater flexibility, a solution around privacy of new product launches, time and budget efficiency, as well as a reduction in emissions. The technology is there, partly thanks to real-time engines such as Unreal Engine and Unity, and making our clients aware and accompanying them is the next big step. Doing it with data, not ideological arguments, is, in my opinion, the way to make a difference at every brief.  

What if every time a project was budgeted for, alongside the number of hours and the labor cost, we also provided a line in the budget for CO2e emissions? At the moment, we're all struggling to understand exactly how many emissions our actions produce on micro and macro levels. Thanks to AdGreen's Carbon Calculator, newly launched in September, this is all subject to change—we can now work out the carbon footprint of advertising campaigns and really begin to understand what impact they're causing.

It's also an opportunity to start making better, greener choices, presenting clients not only with different creative ideas and budget options, but also expressing them in terms of the carbon footprint. Making emissions a mundane line on a budget spreadsheet will embed the idea that this is now another "cost" to consider in our working lives, helping us all to approach the sustainability issue in a holistic manner.

Covid forced all our hands to switch from talking to doing, something the industry really needed. It's now vital to plan for the future and ensure we're sustaining the positive changes long-term, taking responsibility at every stage, and continuing to innovate in the space with practical and creative solutions. Virtual production, and the reduction of emissions it brings, should be at the forefront of our strategies, as should a more concrete understanding of the emissions our activities produce. Having a CO2e line in every project budget could just be the way to do it.

There are no simple answers or solutions when it comes to tackling sustainability in our industry. But what the pandemic taught us, and what we all know from working with each other, is that we're problem solvers who like a challenge. We've learned a lot over the past 18 months, and now isn't the time to abandon those lessons—we simply can't afford to. 

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