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.