The industry discussion about sustainable advertising should be about protecting our planet not sustaining the advertising industry.


I’m not a big Twitter user I will admit but every so often I spend the morning searching for topics I am interested in. This morning it was “sustainable advertising”. 

To my surprise, the tweets about #sustainableadvertising were for the most part not about reducing the impact of advertising on our environment but instead about how to sustain the business of advertising. 

This makes me wonder if our industry has the slightest clue about sustainability or are we just making ourselves feel better by talking about sustainability completely out of context?

I don’t have anything against advertising. It has fed me, clothed me and put a roof over my head since birth (father was an ad man). But I do have a problem with the advertising and media industries being given a “get out of jail free” card. As a creative and innovative industry what are we doing to become more responsible corporate citizens? What are we doing to reduce the negative impact advertising has on our environment? 

The advertising and media industries are enormous industries that so far are not being held accountable the way every other industry sector is. We seem to be more than willing to stay under the radar instead of standing up and playing a constructive role. If nothing else, we should be contributing to sustainability by doing what we do best – getting people to try new things and then reinforcing that behavior so they do it again and again. After all, we’ve spent billions of dollars learning how to do this and we are very good at it.

Perhaps we can continue to take comfort in the fact that the general public is simply not aware of the negative impact we have on our planet but at some point they are going to become aware and it will be just one more reason not to like advertising and rightly so. For an industry that prides itself on being creative and at the leading edge, sticking our heads in the sand instead of grabbing the bull by the horns is NOT in our best interest in the long run.


Let me give you a small example of the negative impact of just one form of advertising-outdoor advertising. Last year in the European Union alone, outdoor advertising consumed 3 million square meters of paper per week. In a year, that equals a one-meter wide piece of paper that wraps our planet 3.9 times! I’m not talking about the vinyl or the new virgin PVC plastic films being used just paper. 

Worse, this paper cannot even be recycled due to the clay coating and ink saturation. The average life cycle of an outdoor paper ad? 12 days! Buried or burned. Deforestation anyone?

 I think if we looked at every form of mass media including digital we would be shocked by the damage we as an industry are responsible for. But perhaps herein lies the problem we don't have the slightest clue. As long as we are not measuring our negative impact and not being held accountable for our actions we can sleep well at night. Ignorance is bliss.

As an industry, we cannot change our behavior overnight nor does anyone expect us to but we do need to start taking steps to clean up our act. This, “there aren’t any alternatives so we have no choice” is pure baloney. 

The natural-media industry is new. It is small by any measure but the brave souls who have entered this new industry are doing what the big boys are either not interested in doing or are simply not capable of doing – innovating new sustainable advertising techniques that have a far lower impact on our environment while actually having a higher impact on the audience. If the little guys can come up with innovative solutions just imagine what the multi-billion dollar big guys could do.

I look forward to the day when I search for “#sustainableadvertising” and the results are about reducing our negative impact on the environment and not about sustaining the industry of advertising. 

It’s time for us to embrace the principles of sustainable development like every other industry sector has had to if only to serve our clients better.

We would be well advised to become more proactive in finding solutions now so that when the day comes and our “dirty little secret” is revealed, we are ready for it. 

It would sure be great if the “big boys” started taking the lead instead of waiting for the little guys to figure it out for them. Staying in tune with the times, with the concerns of the audience and acting responsibly could well be the best way to sustain our industry. At the very least, let's use the word sustainability in the context it is used today so we stop fooling ourselves that somehow we are actually doing something when in fact we are doing pathetically little.

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Jim Bowes

Advertising professional specialising in Natural Media advertising techniques that have a low impact on the environment.