Creating a sustainable future through advertising

Sustainability continues to be a top business priority, but it can be far from easy to implement within organisations. In this blog Ad Net Zero’s Matt Bourn explores how brands can use marketing and advertising to help support a more sustainable future.


Written by Matt Bourn


How can your marketing and advertising help support a more sustainable future?

Work’s underway to help the advertising industry take a cross-sector, practical, systematic approach to the climate emergency to ‘change the way we work and change the work we make’ as an industry. Thanks to the tangible support for Ad Net Zero1 of a couple of hundred courageous companies (including Marketreach) and trade bodies around the world, new tools and measurement frameworks to help businesses decarbonise and become a force for good in the green economy are becoming available.

Ad Net Zero began through a conversation led by UK industry body, the Advertising Association2, with the advertiser's representative association, ISBA3, and the advertising agency body IPA4 in summer 2019. A working group developed a set of proposals, and the Ad Net Zero Plan was born - a set of five simple clear actions5 which provided the basis of the thinking and work now powering our drive towards a sustainable future.

Action plan containing 5 actions in total

For those that may not know, the advertising eco-system’s major players fall into three major buckets: the advertiser, the agency, and the media owner (including the tech platforms which provide channels and platforms to reach audiences). Within those three buckets sit a whole host of roles, from the client who sets the brief to the strategy lead who considers the response. From the creative team responding to insights that inform the brief to the production professionals involved in making the work and onto the media planners and buyers buying the media space. There are sales teams within media owners, tech services to support the delivery of advertising and many more within this complex eco-system.

Depending on the nature of your business, you may only have control over one or two of these actions. However, marketers may have the power to influence them all.

A woman riding a bike

One step at a time, quickly, in the race to tackle climate change

The scale of the climate challenge we face means taking positive action on a day-to-day basis can be overwhelming for any one person working in advertising. One of the concerns in creating the five actions framework, when the team were reviewing the research about our industry’s attitudes towards climate change was how to address paralysing fears and turn them into a set of clear, simple, and practical actions. The five actions were the result of a step-by-step plan which reviewed the end-to-end process of advertising and explained what actions were needed at each stage to decarbonise the industry’s operations and to harness its power to support the building of a net zero economy, along with all the responsibilities that brings. The plan also sought to unite the advertising community as a positive force in the battle against climate change, where each part could hold each other to account, encourage more action, and benefit from each other’s progress. 

The goal of the Ad Net Zero climate action programme – to change the way we work and to change the work we make – is built upon a belief that sustainability will be one of the core competences for every role in the advertising industry, including marketers. Decisions and behaviours throughout the entire working process need to consider, account for, and reduce carbon emissions.

red flower

How can you help shape a sustainable media ecosystem? 

How and where your advertising spend is committed can drive competition around sustainability within a media channel. Many media owners have set out on a path to make their business more sustainable, and more competitive in this way, and a lot depends on reaching 100% renewable energy. If you need inspiration on how and where media channels are taking positive steps, there are many that we detail in our new book, Sustainable Advertising6.
• Just take a look at what’s happening in Out of Home media where the likes of Clear Channel are installing Bee Bus Stops7 to provide routes for wildlife to traverse through urban environments.
• Or the world’s cinema industry which is using the power of the big screen to create mass awareness through major advertising campaigns with the UN, including Don’t Choose Extinction8 and the latest iteration, Weather Kids9.
• Or the work by TV companies like ITV which is breaking new ground with its latest Climate Transition report10, or Channel 4 which proudly generated the highest volume of complaints for an ad campaign with the promotion of its Change Climate season11, featuring the business and political elite wearing carbon skid-marked underpants.

Discover the circular advantage of mail

And, of course, there’s direct mail. 

Marketreach are also committed to impacting real change in the mail channel. They undertook 360-degree research into the environmental landscape of mail and developed the industry's first ever carbon life cycle assessment to help brands understand the impact of the most common mail formats. Marketreach want brands to be empowered to create more sustainable mail campaigns, so they also partnered with the mail industry to develop a step-by-step user guide. But the ultimate goal is for mail to contribute to the circular economy. You can find out more about this and access their tools on the sustainability hub here12.

Royal Mail has also run a TV advertising campaign to make the case to businesses and the public for including the greenest form of delivery13 in its system - the workforce of postal staff who bring letters and packages to the door on foot. This was a prize winner in a competition run by fellow media owner, Sky, in something called the Sky Zero Footprint Fund14

Businesses, large and small, established and start-ups, compete for budget to showcase their sustainability credentials through TV advertising across the Sky Media channels and the resulting ad campaign appeared on UK screens. 

Can you help make the industry’s climate ambition a reality? 

The question when you choose a media partner in the direct channel is what do you know about them and how can they make a positive contribution to your own sustainability efforts? 

More broadly, you have the power as a marketer to strike up powerful and meaningful partnerships with media owners that can support the work to build a better future. This is the force you can exert on your supply chain under Action 3 of the Ad Net Zero action plan. 

This is only to become more and more important to businesses with increasing requirements around ESG reporting. 

An example of where this may all be headed is Omnicom Media Group’s OMG Impact15, which is measuring media owners on their environmental, social and governance to help advertisers better understand the ESG impact of their ad spend decisions. The first client to use the tool is the UK government. 

It’s precisely this type of shift in advertiser expectation that will be a powerful catalyst in helping to shape an advertising industry that supports a better future. And you, with the choices you make with your marketing spend, can make an essential contribution to accelerating this ambition to become a reality. 

Look to the new awards for inspiration and ideas 

If you’re looking for further inspiration on the type of work that the industry can produce which supports a better future, we encourage you to review the Campaign Ad Net Zero awards16. Look at Grand Prix winners such as ITV’s work with eBay and Love Island17 to change the way young people view pre-loved clothing or Hellmann’s Cook Clever, Waste Less18 which helps people save money and reduce food waste. This year’s awards have just opened for entries. 

Put simply, there needs to be a lot more of this kind of work. James Murphy, former Advertising Association Chair, and now founder of New Commercial Arts, said it well when the AA’s Council met back in summer 2019: ‘our industry needs to learn how to sell better’.

You are in pole position to make that happen.


The author, Matt Bourn, is Director of Communications at the Advertising Association and Ad Net Zero. Most recently, he has co-written a new book called Sustainable Advertising

Sustainable Advertising, How Advertising Can Support A Better Future, is out now and available via Kogan Page. It contains a manifesto for all advertising professionals to sign up to and help the industry shift to a more sustainable footing, plus a checklist for people in the industry to track progress against. It builds on the original work by Ad Net Zero and its 5-point action plan to decarbonise ad operations and harness the power of advertising to create sustainable behaviour change. The book features a wide range of case studies, interviews and reviews of research reports and thought leadership, all gathered to help inform readers about the many simple steps they can take to be part of a global sustainability effort. 

The edited extract above from Sustainable Advertising19 by Matt Bourn and Sebastian Munden is © 2024 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd. All rights reserved. 


Useful links

You can order a copy of Sustainable Advertising from Kogan Page here

To find out more about the book and its authors, visit Sustainable Advertising

And to find out more about Ad Net Zero, visit the global site here.


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