Flying In The Face Of The Climate Crisis

Creatively speaking this campaign is excellent:

It does everything right. It’s insightful, original, memorable, able to support hundreds of executions in any media, and could continue for years.

That’s why I’d rather it didn’t exist.

The whole premise seems to be based on pointing out reasons to fly that go beyond the usual pair of business and leisure. There’s ‘It’s not you, London, it’s me’, ‘Head meet sand’, ‘Detox of the century’, ‘Tour de French cheese’ and hundreds of others.

The problem is, it’s 2023 and finding new reasons to take a flight that you might not otherwise have taken is very much Not A Good Thing.

This article explains why, but here’s just one paragraph to make things a little clearer:

A return flight from London to San Francisco emits around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per person – more than twice the emissions produced by a family car in a year, and about half of the average carbon footprint of someone living in Britain. Even a return flight from London to Berlin emits around 0.6 tonnes CO2e – three times the emissions saved from a year of recycling.

More flights means more fuel burned, which means more carbon in the atmosphere, which means a hotter planet, which means we are fucked, and the people who will be most fucked most immediately are the people in the poorer parts of the world, the ones who are least prepared to bear the brunt of a UK resident’s decision to Tour de French cheese.

Like I said, the campaign is brilliant, but the better it gets, the worse it will be for all of us, including everyone who works for BA and everyone who works for the agency.

We need to stop holding up this kind of work as something to aspire to and call it out for the damage it is going to cause to life on earth. If Cannes is going to award Lions for Sustainable Development Goals while also awarding a Grand Prix for this campaign, what’s the point of any of it?

We had many years of awards for cigarette advertising, then banned it. Perhaps we should now do the same for airlines, fossil fuel companies and anyone else whose financial success jeopardises our collective future.

(Sorry, Uncommon. I generally love everything you do, but when you’re this brilliant at mass communication you should think twice before creating something that will cause so much harm to so many of us.)

While I’m on the subject of the Climate Crisis, I also wrote the following on behalf of Green The Bid, an organisation co-founded by my wife.

They are committed to bringing sustainability to advertising production, and reducing flights to shoots is a big part of that.

If you’d like to see how you can help, read on…

I remember the first time I flew for a shoot. It was back in 1998, and for some strange reason we were going to recreate a someone in a deckchair on Brighton beach by heading to Miami. I’m not sure it made sense but I was not going to argue. As a junior creative on £12000 a year, any opportunity to take a free trip abroad felt like a minor lottery win.

We ended up getting upgraded, so it was also my first experience of business class. In those pre 9/11 days, Virgin Atlantic offered on-board massage, a spacious bar area and mini personal movie players. When we landed in Miami I was in no hurry to disembark.

So I get it. Flying can be fun. Maybe not always as fun as that first trip, but certainly a lot more fun than sitting at your desk for four hours then heading out into the rain for an underwhelming lunchtime sandwich.

In the following twenty years, I flew a lot for work, and was delighted to do so, even when the departure time was early and the destination was a day’s conference in Berlin. I think that’s because everyone’s early experience of flying always starts as a vacation, so it’s hard to deprogram those endorphin-loosening cues of pleasure and excitement: airports, passports, boarding, take off, your own food, drink and endless movies… When you’re a kid that seems like the most fun you can possibly have, and then it all leads to further fun at your destination: hotels and sunshine and no homework.

So when it happens in your working life, it’s hard to ignore all that, especially when you add free booze to the situation. Sure, you’re ‘working’, but you’re also staying in a hotel, meeting interesting people and being taken for free lunches and dinners in a foreign city. Traveling is generally considered to be one of the best experiences a person can have, but the one thing that makes it even better is having some faceless corporate sugar daddy pick up the entire tab while a producer organizes everything for you.

Yes indeed: flying is very, very good, but it’s also very, very bad.

Allow me to explain why…

Picture the scene: your script has been approved, bids are in, and production suggests you’re going to be shooting in Brazil (if you’re reading this from Brazil, picture Los Angeles instead). Do you:

  1. Wonder if you can buy Havaianas at the airport, look for that tube of SPF 30 and dream of your first in-flight margarita?
  2. Prep yourself for the to-ing and fro-ing with finance about whether or not you’ll be flying business or premium economy?
  3. Fret about the additional impact your script will now be having on the climate crisis?

I imagine 90% of you will choose some version of a), but that might be because you’re not aware that flying creates 60-90% of the emissions produced by the average advertising shoot.

So unless more people answer c), we’re going to continue doing a lot of harm, all while our minds are on casting, Cannes and yes, the occasional Cuba Libre.

‘But,’ you’re probably wondering, ‘what am I supposed to do about it? All I did was start my script with ‘Open on Ipanema at sunset…’ How can I be to blame?’ Well, joking aside, it does actually start with the locations you add to your ideas. 

Sure, you can find yourself shooting in a Prague studio because the labor rate is cheaper, or South Africa because it’s February and your commercial will appear in June, which means rainy London is out of the question. But actions have consequences, and the selection of a faraway destination over one that’s nearby might give you a chance to add to your air miles, but it will also add to the PPM of atmospheric carbon.

As this article explains, if air travel were a country it would be the sixth-biggest CO2 producer in the world, so when a casual ‘Ipanema’ on a script suddenly adds fifteen business class flights (creatives, CDs, clients, account people, production, assorted people who ‘have’ to go on what looks like it might be a quasi vacation etc.) to the planet’s emissions, it might be worth considering another destination.

And yes: I understand that life is hard and annoying, and a little business class trip to Brazil could really take the edge off some of those stresses. I also understand that this specific location might be critical to the success of your script, and that, after all, is your primary responsibility. Finally, I understand that your single excursion will only be 0.0000000003% of the final total of all global emissions, so what’s the big deal?

Let’s take those one by one: yes, life is difficult, and addressing the need to make it feel less so is something we do every day, in ways both big and small. But many of those ways fall in to the category of ‘short-term gain; long-term pain’, where the immediate pleasure creates a larger problem at some point in the future. And that’s exactly what any unnecessary air travel does. The carbon cost will be borne by everyone, long after the shoot has faded into a distant memory. Will it be worth it? That’s a subjective matter for your own conscience, but at least you can now approach that quandary from an informed position.

Then there’s the question of whether or not a flight (or fifteen) is necessary to make your commercial as good as it can be. Will the journey improve it enough to make it more effective? More impactful? More awarded? It might be impossible to know for sure, but maybe we can reframe it for you: if you agree the flights are problematic, where do you draw the line in adding something problematic to improve the commercial communication you are making on behalf of a corporation? Is promoting negative body imagery too much? What about causing depression in teenagers? Or increasing the power of a retail giant to crush a mom-and-pop competitor? Any of those might or might not be the result of your the script that comes out of your MacBook. So how far is ‘too far’ for you?

Last is the question of how much difference your flights will make in the grand old scheme of things. Well, it’s only a grand old scheme of things because it’s made up of millions and millions of smaller old schemes of things. Will setting your spot closer to home make much of a difference to the overall rise in the global temperature that will cause financial hardship, migration and death? No, but if we all think that way, the human race disappears. And besides, one action can inspire others. If you’re the only person deciding not to fly, you might feel a little exposed, but if others take your lead, and flying to shoots takes on the same stigma as, say, racism, your choice could make a real, significant, positive difference.

It’s an easy decision and very complicated one.

It could make a huge difference or a tiny one.

It’s could be a problem or an opportunity.

But the good news is that you’re an intelligent, committed person who is now armed with some useful facts. Maybe you can’t prevent this shoot, but if you bring it up this time, or talk to your CSR person, or your holding company’s CSR person, you might find that you start the ball rolling into all sorts of unexpected areas. (Pro tip: companies don’t like spending money. This is a great way to avoid spending money.)

So that’s your run-down of flights and flying and the climate and cash and your need for pleasure rubbing up against your responsibility to avert the heat-death of the world. 

I hope it hasn’t been too guilt-inducing.

If you want any advice, Green The Bid has spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking, writing and talking about this. It’s their thing, and they like nothing more than spreading the word to expand the effect. Get in touch at and find out all the fantastic ways in which we can make the advertising industry more sustainable.