Discussing the event 'Decoupling desire? Food, advertising, consumption and the question of limits'

Our event on May 6th focused on bringing together representatives from the advertising and food industries, from social enterprise and academia to explore advertising, food, desire and the question of ecological limits.


Ben Essen is Chief Strategy Officer at Iris Worldwide, a global integrated marketing agency, and the co author of the Advertised Emissions report which quantifies the increase in emissions arising from the increase in consumption that can be attributed to advertising

Fergus Lyon is a Professor of Enterprise and Organisations at Middlesex University in London and Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity. He has a particular research focus on social enterprise but combines his academic career with the running of a B-Corps certified mixed farm in Hertfordshire.

April Redmond is a global brand vice president at Unilever, responsible for the Knorr range, whose ambition is “to be a force for good and to get food that is good for people and the planet on 7 billion plates by 2025”.

This online event was chaired by Tara Garnett, director of TABLE and a researcher at the University of Oxford. It was a moderated discussion followed by an audience Q&A session. A recording will be made available here after the event.

What are your takeaways from the event? What role do you think advertising can play in achieving net-zero goals? Can we use consumption for ‘good’?

TABLE, in partnership with the Oxford Martin School, hosted a panel discussion on May 6, 2022 to discuss the role of food advertising in the context of net zero and the tensions between a world with finite resources and infinite desires. “Decoupling desire? Food, advertising, consumption, and the question of limits” was precipitated by the landmark report “Advertised Emissions: The Carbon Emissions Generated by UK Advertising” which found that the UK advertising industry was responsible for more than 186 million tonnes of CO2e, thus adding an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every Briton.

Bringing together representatives from the advertising and food industries, social enterprise, and academia, the panel discussed the concept of advertised emissions. In parallel to the concept of financed emissions in the finance industry, advertised emissions refers to the greenhouse gas emissions that result from the uplift in sales generated by advertising. As such, the advertising industry has a crucial, yet under-examined, role in achieving net zero emissions.

While all panelists recognized the incredible power of advertising in shaping desire and consumer behavior, enormous barriers to sustainable consumption patterns remain. ‘Plant-based,’ ‘vegan,’ and ‘vegetarian’ foods and food marketing are considered bland, feminine, and generally unpalatable by many, if not most, consumers. People are constantly bombarded with messaging about healthy, sustainable eating and have been for decades, with little actual change in dietary patterns achieved.

Yet there is hope. Sustainability and profitability are no longer necessarily at odds, as sustainable brands are growing in response to consumer demand for ethical products. Advertising has the potential to entertain, excite, and inspire people to make simple tweaks to their food consumption patterns that, if adopted at scale, could have tremendous benefits for both health and the environment.

There are pitfalls, however, in using advertising to promote sustainability. Advertising can give consumers the illusion of sustainability, but in fact propagates corporate greenwashing. Using advertised emissions to guide agencies’ decision-making can help combat greenwashing and ensure that advertising outputs are aligned with meaningful corporate sustainability objectives.

Companies across the corporate spectrum, from B-corps and social enterprises to multi-national agrifood corporations are increasingly adopting not just sustainability commitments, but also regenerative agriculture and circular economy practices. Government has a role to play too. By highlighting the environmental impacts of food products through carbon taxes and food labeling, government can help consumers understand the impact of their consumption choices.

While ‘decoupling desire’ may require more fundamental economic and cultural transformations, there is potential for the advertising industry to understand the entirety of its Scope 3 emissions by embracing the concept of ‘advertised emissions’ and hold itself accountable for achieving net zero emissions. The industry has a crucial role to play in creating desire for more sustainable lifestyles and helping consumers envision how ‘the good life’ can be compatible with sustainability.

Some interesting takeaway points from this discussion:
· If companies do not have clear environmental objectives, then advertising is likely to be greenwash.

· The purpose of for-profit business is still to serve shareholders by maximising profits. Other business models could be used to encourage innovation, regulate behaviour, and ensure objectives other than profitability are centred in decision-making.

· Does advertising have a role in changing people’s behaviour in more ‘positive’ ways? For example, encouraging more meat-free days by changing perceptions of plant-based food (‘brown, green, insipid’) to something that is more vibrant, lively, and exciting.

· Food is highly gendered, with plant-based food considered by many to be feminine, whereas meat, particularly red meat, is construed as masculine. As plant-based meat-alternatives grow in popularity, these products have often been marketed as ‘manly’ as a means of appealing to a wider audience. How can advertising shift consumer behaviour towards more sustainable plant-based options without reinforcing existing gender stereotypes?

· Coming hard at consumers has not been effective. Meeting consumers where they are, proposing alternatives that are affordable and doable, and connecting consumers with stories that inspire are all advertising strategies that have demonstrated success in changing consumer behaviour.

· One of the panellists noted the discussion hadn’t really touched on social media and its role in driving consumption. How could advertisers, food systems practitioners, producers and consumers use social media as a force for good? What are examples of current good practice?

· The discussion ended with a question as to whether advertising is currently really decoupling desire or just selling sustainability. Some ideas were raised in the discussion, but if advertising is currently selling sustainability (at best), how do we get to the point of decoupling desire?

Do you agree with any of these points? Could advertising be used to address some of the environmental, social and economic issues in our food system?

Hi, do you have a transcript for this debate? Thanks!

Hi Rupert, I’m afraid we don’t have a transcript, though the full debate is available to watch again (with or without subtitles).