As countries and large companies contemplate how they might combat rising planet temperatures, advertising agencies are starting to take a closer look at what their role might be in staving off climate change.
By now, many agencies are experienced with conveying their clients' sustainability measures in marketing materials. The steps required to reduce carbon emissions can be more obvious for manufacturers and other large marketers — including introducing more environmentally friendly packaging and switching to clean power at factories — than for service-oriented businesses. With this in mind, a few smaller agencies are working with Green Places, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based startup that helps service-oriented businesses become carbon neutral.
"Agencies are historically great at communicating their clients' purpose to consumers, but we're historically bad at doing it for ourselves," said Lee Davis, founder of agency Clean. "[Green Places] reinforces how we need to do the work ourselves."
Green Places provides a roadmap to carbon neutrality by auditing its clients' carbon footprint (using University of California Berkley's CoolClimate Project) and recommending behavioral and business changes, such as incentivizing remote work and mass transit commuting and cutting down on air travel, to make that impact smaller.
In many cases, those changes will not be enough to get an agency's carbon footprint to zero. To get over that finish line, Green Places provides an offset dollar amount to be invested in eco-friendly companies and projects.
Many businesses already have the desire to do more about environmental change, but don't know how to go about reaching their goal because the myriad possible approaches to addressing the issue can be complex, according to Alex Lassiter, founder and CEO of Green Places. Green Places focuses on making the way forward more easily understood.
"If you're a Patagonia or a Nike you can hire people or a consultant that can come up with a bespoke plan for your company," Lassiter said. "For those of us in a service business, you can't hire someone in-house and you can't afford a consultant whose job is solely focused on environmental impact. The idea was to make it easy and be a one-stop-shop for climate action."
Clean, through its work with Green Places, is able to combine its resources with other small and mid-sized businesses to make a bigger impact.
"When you're a small business, you don't think you're going to be able to make a big impact," Davis said. "But when we all work together, we can make a difference."
Closing the gap
Prior to working with Green Places, agency Powell had already shrunk its footprint with a fully remote staff (reducing carbon emissions caused by commuting) and had transitioned to being mostly paperless. But when Green Places came back with its report assessing the agency's carbon footprint, Ann Powell, the agency's founder and director of brand and creative, realized there was still more that could be done.
"It was a surprise that we were emitting any carbon at all," Powell said. "When Alex sent us the report, we saw there was a gap that needed to be closed."
Among the recommendations were to help employees reduce their personal footprints, such as offering matching incentives to individual carbon-reducing efforts and charitable contributions or encouraging composting.
"[The audit] was not something we could do on our own," Powell said. "Carbon neutrality seems like a big lift."
Though Green Places' business model is to work with a host of service businesses, Lassiter is hoping contracting with advertising agencies will have a ripple effect with their clients and consumers.
"Agencies help to shape consumer behavior," Lassiter said. "There's a huge amount of danger in thinking this is somebody else’s problem. That is how we got to this point."