essays & posts

Disrupting the System Begins by Telling the Truth

Paula Downey, downey youell associates

July 21∼ 6 minute read

New metrics are revealing what ‘high carbon work’ really looks like. And it’s closer to home than you think.

Gustav Martner, Cannes Lions 2022

Gustav Martner takes to the stage at Cannes Lions, June 2022

Image via Greenpeace France


At the opening ceremony of this year’s Cannes Lions festival, Gustav Martner mounted the stage carrying a gold statue he received some years ago, and gave it back.

Martner has attended this annual celebration of creativity in advertising many times, as both a juror and a winner. Prestigious awards for his creative work were career highlights, each statue a signal that he was doing something right.

Then the ‘diesel-gate’ scandal broke and the penny dropped. “I won my first Lion for Volkswagen,” he says. “It was a wake-up call when I realized the part I had to play in selling those cars.”

This year he came to Cannes as Head of Creative for Greenpeace Nordic, to return his trophies in protest. “Since the Paris Agreement at least 300 awards have been given out at Cannes Lions to adverts promoting air travel, to oil companies that greenwash, and to ads that make cars with polluting combustion engines more desirable.”

As soaring temperatures and tumbling records bring the flames of climate change uncomfortably close to home, Martner’s epiphany raises troubling questions about our own professional complicity in the destruction of the Earth’s climate and biodiversity and rattles taken-for-granted ideas about consumption and economic growth upon which most businesses and professional lives are built.

Gustav Martner’s epiphany raises troubling questions about our own professional complicity in the destruction of the Earth’s climate and biodiversity.

Purpose Disruptors

Purpose Disruptors 

Building a movement for change in the advertising profession

Disrupting the system

Also attending Cannes this year were two of the co-founders of Purpose Disruptors, Jonathan Wise and Lisa Merrick-Lawless. What began as a conversation between a bunch of advertising creatives in a room above a London pub is becoming a movement within the profession. Purpose Disruptors is dedicated to reorienting the direction and purpose of advertising and marketing so that agencies only promote attitudes, lifestyles and brands that are aligned with the ambition of a net zero world by 2030.

Central to this movement is the belief that the entire system must change and this change must come from within: change the people and you change the industry. Change the industry and you change the creative output. Change the output, and you change society.

After an impressive run of campaigns and initiatives they were invited to address the Cannes delegates with a countercultural message — ‘advertising is driving the consumption that’s driving climate change’ — and to showcase ‘Advertised Emissions’, a new metric that offers a way to address the contradiction Gustav Martner is challenging his industry to confront.

Advertising is driving the consumption that’s driving climate change

Advertising is driving the consumption that’s driving climate change.

Image: Joshua Earl / Unsplash

What we measure matters

‘Advertised Emissions’ builds on the logic of ‘Financed Emissions‘, an established metric which measures the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a financial institution’s portfolio in any reporting year.

The central principle shared by both metrics couldn’t be simpler: we are responsible for the downstream impacts of our professional decisions. Period. 

In the world of money, ‘Financed Emissions’ recognises that all finance is so-called ‘impact finance’ because all finance has impacts. Once this self-evident truth is acknowledged, institutions like banks, venture funds, asset managers and insurance underwriters cannot remain agnostic on the impacts of their investment decisions while also remaining professionally credible. As a reporting structure, ‘Financed Emissions’ places responsibility for the ecological consequences of financial decisions firmly at the feet of those whose cash facilitates the people who make the mess. 

In the world of selling, ‘Advertised Emissions’ are the emissions caused by the uplift in sales generated by advertising. In practice this means that advertising and marketing professionals are responsible for the emissions triggered by their work. If your campaign promotes a product that increases emissions, then those emissions are logged on your scorecard.

You may ask: but isn’t the whole point of advertising to increase sales?


But in a world on the brink of a climate and biodiversity catastrophe now beamed into our living rooms nightly, we’re being forced to ask: what exactly are we selling? What way of life are we perpetuating? Are we promoting a cultural shift towards a liveable world? Or are we paying the mortgage and funding our kids’ college fees by keeping our climate-breaking system on the road?

These metrics have now been adopted by Race to Zero, the United Nation’s campaign to rally global ambition and leadership towards achieving net zero emissions and bring greater rigor and transparency to the murky territory of corporate net-zero claims. Race to Zero’s current membership of organisations, investors, cities and regions represents half the world’s GDP.

The fog lifts

By definition, these new metrics are works-in-progress but they are already clarifying the source of our climate and ecological crises.

A 2019 estimate calculated the UK’s ‘Financed Emissions’ at 1.8 times the UK’s net emissions, revealing that the carbon footprint of the country’s finance business stretches far beyond its physical territory. Included in this analysis were fifteen systemically important British banks which, were they a country, would be the ninth biggest carbon emitter in the world. In the same year, the UK’s ‘Advertised Emissions’ were almost half the size of all domestically produced emissions. Put simply, the advertising business dumped another 28% onto the carbon footprint of every UK citizen.

The climate and ecological crisis has been called a hyperobject, so vast in scale that it roundly defeats our conventional ways of thinking. When the media routinely illustrates this crisis with images of trapped dolphins, raging fires, mountains of washed-up plastic and people in faraway places waist-deep in floodwater, these disasters can appear to have little reference to our own lives.

But when we use metrics that more accurately reflect reality, sectors whose work is intangible - like financial institutions and firms providing legal advice, management consulting, public relations, advertising and marketing services - are revealed to be high carbon industries. And much closer to home.

When we use metrics that more accurately reflect reality, sectors whose work is intangible — like financial institutions and firms providing legal advice, management consulting, public relations, advertising and marketing services — are revealed to be high carbon industries.

And why stop at finance and advertising? What about broadcast emissions? Or built emissions? Or farmed emissions?

What would happen if we built these metrics into our balance sheets?

If we counted what really counts, would the work we do still make economic sense?

And if we screened-in the impacts of what we do, would our work make moral sense?

Corporate Fiction

The perilous state of the living world is confronting us with some inconvenient truths. We’re being asked to look beyond the ambit of our desk and consider the wider consequences of our work. What purposes are we serving? What are we enabling?

Legally, this is novel ground. Until now, companies have successfully hidden behind the legally constructed fiction that their professional responsibilities end at their front door and what happens downstream is someone else’s problem.

Metrics like Financed and Advertised Emissions are changing this logic. Once you open your mind to the fact that you’re responsible for all that you cause to happen, you’re faced with the impacts of your work on the wider system.

Right now, that system is on fire, melting, flooding and becoming extinct at breakneck speed. All of it the downstream consequence of the work of our hands: everything we do and everything we permit, sometimes with our own decisions, sometimes with our cooperation and complicity, and more often with our professional silence.

There aren’t enough mops in the world to clean up the mess we’ve made with our flawed logic. At some point, we have to turn off the tap. And we are the tap. Financed and Advertised Emissions are just the beginning. They’ve opened a door that I doubt will be closed. In the context of the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth our professional decisions are becoming ethical decisions.

Like it or not, the days of ignoring the impacts of our work are numbered.


Paula Downey is senior partner at  CultureWork© and co-creator of The Climate Action Sprint. She has a Masters in Responsibility and Business Practice and she writes and speaks on the challenges and opportunities of whole system change.


Now and then we observe the world through the lens of living systems and our CultureWork perspective.

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