The Promise and Perils of Adland Taking Climate Action

It's not up to marketers to reinvent the wheel

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After decades of working on sustainability with heavy industries, I’ve had the pleasure of taking a deep dive into the advertising sector over the past 18 months. While I was initially surprised that an issue as well established as climate was new to the sector, I’ve been very impressed with the seriousness with which many leading ad companies have been taking concrete action.

They are joining the rest of the world, particularly in creating and verifying their greenhouse gas emissions inventories, setting science-based net zero targets, taking steps to reduce emissions and offsetting the remaining emissions with carbon removal project investments. 

Excitingly, in addition to reducing their own emissions, the advertising industry plays a uniquely important role by influencing behaviors aligned with climate action around the globe. But the kryptonite to this superpower takes the form of confusion, opportunism and lack of coordinated action. 

The good news is that there has been a flurry of activity and sincere interest in addressing climate, starting with the creation of Ad Net Zero in November 2020, initially focused on the U.K. then raising awareness globally, and recently creating a U.S. chapter in February 2023. Their five-point action plan starts with having every ad company inventory and report their greenhouse gas emissions and setting science-based targets to achieve net zero.

Similar to the life cycle assessment approach that most brands use to understand and reduce their environmental impacts, the Action Plan also addresses emissions from ad production (in partnership with AdGreen) and from the distribution and display of ads (in partnership with WFA’s Global Alliance for Responsible Media). These important efforts are being supported and complemented by other key advertising associations including IAB Tech Lab, Prebid, ANA and the 4As. 

While there clearly is great potential for the ad sector to help all of us take meaningful climate action, there are a number of perils that can jeopardize these important and necessary changes. There has been widespread confusion about climate terms (e.g., carbon neutral versus net zero), unsubstantiated claims and competing ways of estimating carbon emissions, leading to a Tower of Babel situation that can undermine the trust essential for key stakeholders, some of whom may write off these efforts as greenwashing

Unfortunately, the majority of what I have seen of the efforts to quantify and reduce emissions so far would not be taken seriously by climate experts, including those at major brands. Part of the problem is that many in the ad sector have tried to reinvent the wheel within the confines of their competitive landscape, rather than realize that virtually all of the key questions have already been answered through similar processes in other sectors.

The best way to meet everyone’s goals is through precompetitive collaboration, both within the ad sector and across all of the key climate stakeholder groups. 

I am very optimistic that this awkward growth phase will quickly pass through faster and deeper collaboration. Beyond the strong start in working across the people and organizations already in the ad sector, it is critical to bring sustainability experts into the process. Climate NGOs, consultants and, above all, the brand experts—who will be paying the costs, directly or indirectly, of ad decarbonization—who have been working on climate for decades can quickly align the ad sector’s actions with established best practices.

This collaboration can avoid unnecessary cycles and mitigate the risk that all the sincere hard work going into these efforts will be rejected by advertisers, regulators and investors because existing standards and best practices were not followed. 

Over the past few weeks, I have spoken with more than 10 chief sustainability officers and climate executives for major brands. None of them have explored the decarbonization of marketing and advertising, but all of them have committed to reach out to their chief marketing officers to provide expert support. This collaboration with climate experts can address a number of key issues. 


Climate is a new, complex topic with its own terminology, standards and ecosystem, so those in the ad sector who want to be part of meaningful progress need training and support. I spoke at a green media summit recently, and the top requested action item from across a wide variety of stakeholders was climate education. 

Fortunately, there are many existing resources from leading climate NGOs (e.g., The Greenhouse Gas Protocol) and from the ad sector (e.g., Ad Net Zero). If you are part of a brand, you have climate expert colleagues who would be happy to engage if you reach out to them. 


In my world, it is self-evident that no one should make claims or accept claims from others without reputable third-party verification. It’s astonishing to see how many ad firms are putting out emissions figures or making claims about being “green,” “carbon neutral” or “net zero” without any serious, transparent third-party verification. It’s even more astonishing how others in the sector seem to believe these unsubstantiated claims. 

Climate experts understand the importance of verification and can help you with the mechanics. It’s just like making sure your financial and performance data can be accepted by your stakeholders. 


Brands should require in their contracting terms that every company in their advertising value chain with significant revenues (e.g., over $100 million) create a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, have it verified by a reputable third-party (for less than the cost of a cocktail party) and disclose the inventory publicly through a well-recognized platform, such as CDP, The Climate Registry or the Global Reporting Initiative.

This action will quickly align the sector with the rest of the world, help ad companies become aware of their own impact and create the data needed to have more accurate estimates of ad campaign impacts. 

One of the reasons I’m optimistic is that OpenX recently demonstrated how quickly the ad sector can move by becoming not just the first certified carbon-neutral company in the industry but the first company in the world to meet the Science Based Technology initiative (SBTi) Corporate Net-Zero Standard. That fact has really impressed the climate community, demonstrating that the ad sector is serious about climate and making collaboration more attractive. 

As much as those of you in advertising feel like you may need climate experts, the truth is that we are the ones who really need you: You have a superpower that we generally, painfully, lack—the ability to change behavior. We need to work together, now, to have a chance to avoid the worst of the complex, planet-wide impacts of climate change. The ad industry will play a critical role in changing behaviors everywhere, becoming a hero on the path to net zero in record time.