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27 . 03 . 24

Brands and agencies will use Carbon footprint data in media selection

Words by: Print Power
The graphic industry traditionally defines sustainability through factors such as paper sourced from managed forests, recycled paper usage, recycling rates, natural paper attributes, non-toxic inks and more. However, in the era of net zero emissions, sustainability pivots toward Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol categorises emissions as Scope 1 and 2 (direct business emissions) and Scope 3 (indirect emissions).
In this article we discuss the content of a recent book and the implications for print media.

Sustainability at a glance

  • The advertising industry (brands, media owners and agencies) is actively developing an operational model to integrate carbon footprint data into media planning
  • However, measuring carbon footprints across different channels and supply chains remains inconsistent
  • The agencies aim to drive consumer behaviour towards a net-zero society
  • Quantifying emissions from incremental consumption of advertised products and services is challenging
  • Stakeholders in the print media value chain should work together to define a single, coherent carbon calculator to inform media selection decisions.

In their recent book, Sustainable Advertising, authors Matt Bourn and Sebastian Munden present a thought-provoking outlook for print media. Bourn, Director of Communications for the Advertising Association and Ad Net Zero in the UK, and Munden, Chair of Ad Net Zero and WRAP, delve into the advertising industry’s dual challenge: reducing its own emissions while catalysing positive consumer behaviour for a more sustainable world. Within these pages, they introduce a diverse cast of stakeholders, including advertisers, media owners, and industry players. Their comprehensive exploration encompasses reports, guidelines, playbooks, and case studies, all aimed at aligning with the Paris Climate Agreement. The book’s true value lies in providing a systematic overview of how the advertising industry can actively contribute to lowering CO2 emissions. It highlights the zero-emission goals set by major advertisers, agencies, and tech companies, emphasising that achieving net zero by 2050 is less critical than the commitment of socially responsible companies to an earlier timeline.

The positive force of the ad industry

Consumer skepticism looms over brand sustainability claims, with 60% questioning brand motivations. In response, the book not only offers a Green Claim Guide (WPP) but also delves into existing regulations and environmental claim guidelines (WFA).

Driving demand for sustainable products and services necessitates behavioural shifts in areas like home life, consumption, transportation, and diet. Communication— specifically advertising—plays a pivotal role in catalysing these changes. The authors emphasise advertising’s power to facilitate this transformation. Their exploration includes studies and models that underscore the challenges: “Our economy, infrastructure, norms and media environment are not well designed for those who wish to live sustainably, but without great personal effort or compromise. This is why some-politicians included – recoil the ideas of widespread “behaviour change” either disavowing what they see as the necessary means and /or the ends’ (BIT 2023).

The EAST model—comprising Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely elements—provides a practical framework for behavioural change. By making actions easy, appealing, socially accepted, and timely, advertisers can nudge consumers toward sustainable choices. Testing messaging and tailoring it to engage disengaged groups further amplifies this impact. Ultimately, these strategies empower the advertising industry to sell better while doing good.

While this optimistic perspective positions the ad industry as a force for positive change toward a net-zero society, it faces significant ethical responsibilities. In an era of fake news, disinformation, greenhushing and greenwashing, advertisers must tread carefully. Their influence extends beyond mere sales—it shapes perceptions, behaviours, and societal norms.


The interplay between advertising and emissions

1. Advertising Emissions

Emissions are categorised into Scope 1, 2, and 3. Notably, indirect emissions from procured products and services can constitute a significant portion. For instance, the advertising conglomerate WPP disclosed in their 2019 Sustainability Report that 54% of their emissions stemmed from media purchases. These emissions called Advertising Emissions, arose from various channels (online, print, TV, outdoor, radio and cinema) procured for their clientele. For WPP, attaining their net-zero objective by 2030 necessitates a substantial reduction in these emissions, commencing with the most CO2-intensive online media platforms, which, incidentally, did not affect advertising efficacy.

The recent Guardian Media Group's 2022-2023 Sustainability Report reveals that 99% of their assessed emissions footprint originates from the supply chain (Scope 3), with the printing operations accounting for 72%, predominantly due to paper production. These statistics are expected to form the foundation of the carbon footprint for advertisements placed in The Guardian.

Driven by client expectations and their own ambitions for net-zero emissions, agencies are reevaluating the CO2 emissions within their media mix. With net-zero targets, CO2 reduction becomes a pivotal criterion in media selection. Although not covered in the book, the agency group HAVAS has implemented a predictive media mix model that integrates emissions as a metric.

The principal challenge for the reduction lies in measurement: how can one quantify the emissions of a complex supply chain involving numerous stakeholders and a plethora of activities? The book repeatedly highlights the absence of consistent, transparent, and comparable tools for measurement. Mindshare, a media agency within GroupM, points out that 'existing carbon calculators use inconsistent parameters which means emissions cannot be compared. Consistency is crucial’.

This may stem from the marketing and advertising sector's relatively recent focus on sustainability. The authors note the dialogue between the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) and the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) as a significant catalyst for the advertising sector's increased climate awareness.


2. Advertised Emissions

A second aspect concerns the CO2 emissions resulting from advertising. Consumer purchasing and usage of products and services are influenced by advertising, leading to what is termed 'Advertised Emissions.' Despite the industry's substantial investment in understanding the link between advertising and sales, there appears to be a lack of data and a definitive model to quantify the additional CO2 emissions driven by this increased level of consumption, particularly at the level of individual advertising campaigns. It is suggested that perhaps this assessment could be conducted at the corporate level with tools like the Net Zero Tracker.


The print media value chain faces a significant challenge in demonstrating to the advertising industry, brands, and to a certain extent, consumers, their commitment and progress in reducing emissions. Addressing the pre-existing notion of being an environmentally unfriendly industry requires steadfast consistency and transparency.


Why is this book particularly relevant for the print media value chain?

The paper industry, led by Cepi, has embraced forward-thinking by introducing a Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) framework and related Category Rules (PEFCR) for paper, board, and tissue paper. These tools empower paper companies to conduct comprehensive Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs), including assessments of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on a comparable basis. However, the journey toward sustainability involves more stakeholders. Currently, there lacks a consistent emissions measurement tool upstream. Addressing this gap is crucial, especially since advertising remains a cornerstone of print media. The graphic sector must align with the ad industry’s requirements and provide emission data across the entire value chain. For instance, Market Reach, a division of Royal Mail, employs a carbon calculator for their top 10 formats. This tool equips agencies and advertisers with metrics to curtail campaign carbon emissions.

Notably, publishers such as Bauer and Haymarket in the UK have commenced this endeavour, as highlighted in the referenced book. At the association level, the Professional Publishers Association (PPA) in the UK has crafted a Pathway for its members to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

The authors underscore the urgency of implementing such a tool, stating that 'individuals engaged in media planning and buying can take immediate action to eliminate carbon emissions from their everyday media plans. This approach focuses on minimising negative environmental impacts while maintaining the full efficacy of advertising expenditure.'

The establishment of a graphic industry-wide carbon measurement is imperative, one that enables 'data from various media channels to be assessed in a manner that is fair, precise, and proportionate.’