Sustainable advertising has the power to drive Europe’s green transition

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In an own-initiative opinion adopted last week, the EESC set out measures for advertising to adapt to the challenges of climate change and the post-pandemic recovery while continuing to play its important role in Europe’s economy and culture.

Advertising has a fundamental role in economic growth, job creation and support for Europe’s culture. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) recommends a framework for a modern advertising industry that maintains these functions while becoming a trustworthy lever for responsible consumption and engaging everyone in the transition towards a more sustainable economy.

According to various studies, every euro spent on advertising generates a 5 to 7 times greater boost to Europe’s economy. New products and services are spread, competition expands and public access to media, arts and sport is funded. But at the same time, the industry is often criticised for promoting overconsumption and for negative impacts on society and the environment.

We are trying to explore the way this sector should evolve so that it remains efficient but at the same time ensures that its development is compatible with sustainable development, explains Thierry Libaert, rapporteur of the opinion.

Special attention is paid to limiting environmental harm from advertising, to preventing misleading claims to consumers, or “greenwashing”, and to engaging all interested bodies and regulators in collective action for advertising that supports the green transition.

The sector has to renew itself and open itself up to consumer associations, innovative start-ups, cooperatives and environmental organisations. In this way, it will gain greater legitimacy, Mr Libaert concludes.

Responsible communication

First, advertising can do more to mitigate its impact on the environment. The EESC calls on businesses and agencies to debate how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, in line with the European Parliament’s resolution for a sustainable economy, and to be carbon neutral by 2050, guided by the European Commission’s Fit for 55 Package.

Sustainability should be incorporated into every promotional campaign. In practical terms, advertising operators could be encouraged to reduce the energy consumption of digital billboards or make them more recyclable. To limit the environmental impacts of printed publicity, businesses could shift to PEFC- and FSC-labelled paper from sustainably managed forests and to low-toxicity inks complying with EU REACH and GreenGuard standards.

Advertising practices can also “nudge” consumers into reducing their collective environmental footprint. For example, advertisements could encourage car sharing by showing fewer drivers alone in their cars. Good practice should be reinforced by a stronger focus on environmental issues in university courses for communication professions.

Another overdue discussion is on unrealistic representations, such as harmful single-use products being presented as “sustainable”. In fact, a 2020 study by national consumer authorities and the European Commission found that 42% of “green” product claims on company websites were untrue or exaggerated. Young people are especially vulnerable to misleading claims, particularly on social media.

A wider consensus among the advertising community to provide factual, accurate information would empower more consumers to identify products with genuinely reduced environmental impacts, argues the EESC. Here the European Commission has a role in working towards EU-wide regulation that supports the advertising industry in its fight against disinformation.

Inclusive initiatives

All interested parties, large and small, should be involved in steering advertising towards responsible consumption in Europe, the EESC proposes.

For its part, the EESC has been proposing since 2014 that the EU take action to ensure consumers receive accurate information. In 2020, it suggested guidelines for advertising that lead to more sustainable consumption and in 2021 set out measures to combat greenwashing.

These proposals are in line with the European Commission’s focus on responsible advertising in the 2020 Circular Economy Action Plan and guidelines on preventing misleading environmental claims, to be published in 2021. The European Parliament also proposed measures in 2020 that would require advertising to respect public standards on the environment and consumer health.

The approach should also provide incentives for advertisers who hold themselves accountable to these standards. The EESC acknowledges that the sector has made progress, especially in combating misleading environmental claims. Regulation of the sector has also improved. Stronger regulation might be needed for products with a great impact, such as fossil fuels.

This support would reduce the risk of advertisers migrating to the foreign tech companies that control much of digital advertising systems and strengthens an industry that remains central to Europe’s transition to more sustainable consumption.

A healthy advertising ecosystem is central to the success of these efforts. The EESC recommends financial support for advertising SMEs in the post-COVID crisis. To better include SMEs and non-profits in the drive to more sustainable consumption, the EESC calls on advertising operators to increase pro bono representation of organisations most active in climate transition and social inclusion.