Promoting pollution: fast fashion, fancy cruises

Boohoo fashion advert on Transport for London's tube network in London, UK, in 2023.

An example of a typical fast fashion billboard advert promoting consumerism, commonly seen on streets and transport networks.

Controls on adverts for oil companies, SUV makers and airlines are already starting to happen - but what else should we stop advertising to raise our survival chances?

Now that the impacts of climate breakdown are impossible to ignore, adverts for polluting products that make the problem worse seem increasingly incongruous. It looks like they are promoting our own self-destruction. 

Heavily climate-polluting products and companies are increasingly seen as the ‘new tobacco’ with measures being taken to stop promoting them by controlling their adverts. 

What began with attention on oil and gas companies quickly shifted to focus on cars that use petrol and diesel and the aviation industry, because these are some of the main ways in which polluting fossil fuels are ‘consumed’. 

From small towns to big cities, more and more tobacco-style bans on advertising fossil fuels, cars and airlines are now being introduced. 


These products and services are some of the most obvious pathways for pollution. But others might be as polluting, yet less easy to see. 

For that reason, some local authorities in the Netherlands, for example, who are introducing controls on polluting products have also listed things like red meat. So, beyond the clear cases for action, what should we stop advertising to raise our survival chances?

The list for consideration is growing, from fast fashion to fossil finance, red meat and dairy products, to cruise liners, and long haul holidays.  

These all fall into the category of things for which there is a widespread understanding, and clear recommendations to government from official advisors, such as the UK’s Climate Change Committee, that demand needs to be reduced.

Certain marketing trends also need scrutiny, such as the over-hyping of some technological fixes to global heating crisis. 

Before there are libertarian howls of protest, it’s worth pointing out that, just as with tobacco, controls on advertising do not actually remove anybody’s access to a polluting product or service if they want to seek it out. 

But they do reduce demand that would not be there was it not for the marketing campaigns. 


Now that the impacts of climate breakdown are impossible to ignore, adverts for polluting products that make the problem worse seem increasingly incongruous. 

It looks like they are promoting our own self-destruction. For that reason, calls for ‘tobacco-style’ bans on their advertising are rising especially in richer industrialised countries that need to cut emissions hardest and fastest.

Yet there are other damaging products and services, perhaps less immediately obvious, whose active advertising could amount to humanity hastening its own demise. 

Any successful restrictions on high-carbon advertising need to cover the most carbon-intensive and environmentally destructive sectors, products and services. 

But new goods and services with substantial environmental impacts may suddenly emerge, such as the recent phenomenon of advertisements for disposable vaping products. Also, emissions from any given industry, such as fast fashion, can rapidly accelerate.  

Now that the impacts of climate breakdown are impossible to ignore, adverts for polluting products that make the problem worse seem increasingly incongruous. It looks like they are promoting our own self-destruction. 

Social justice and equity within and between countries also call for a responsive approach. Rich, and historically heavily polluting countries have signed up to reduce emissions far faster than poorer ones in recognition of their bigger role in creating the climate crisis. But heavy marketing of large, inefficient SUVs in rich countries has pushed people in the wrong direction in a very short time frame

Sectors now being promoted that also are pushing wealthier countries in the wrong, more polluting direction include the advertising of fast fashion, environmentally-damaging food, holidays abroad, extended sea tourism in the form of cruises, and the slightly different case of fossil fuel financiers, alongside other goods and services.

Pushing pollution

On their current trajectories, and driven by massive advertising campaigns, advertising in these sectors is driving rising over-consumption with huge impacts, and making effective climate action harder.

By 2030, emissions from fashion are expected to rise by almost 50 percent. At the current rate of growth, meat consumption in Europe is predicted not to fall, but to rise by 76 percent by 2050, but it has been estimated that it needs to drop by 71 percent by 2030, and 81 percent by 2050, to meet climate goals.

The global cruise industry is growing rapidly at an estimated 11 percent per year up to 2028, and some cruise ships may be even more carbon intensive per passenger than flying. 

Greenwashing is also a pervasive issue that needs to be tackled in advertising, and is in some ways even more insidious because it creates the false sense of climate action taking place, and leaves people with a false sense of security that the problem is in hand. 

Altogether these examples highlight the need for a bigger, broader conversation about advertising as an obstacle to climate action.

 Worse it raises advertising’s role in driving demand for polluting products and lifestyles, just as official advice and climate policy is trying to reduce them. In other words, there are many more types of advertising that are undermining our long-term survival chances than people are generally aware of.

Offsets off-target

Adverts are increasingly full of promises to offset the impact of purchases. However, offsetting does not reduce emissions and may in fact make the problem worse by delaying genuine emissions reductions at their source. 

A series of investigations into established and well-regarded voluntary carbon markets - the primary route through which offsets are purchased and sold - has shown that more than 90 percent of rainforest offsets are completely worthless and have led to no actual reductions in emissions. 

What’s more, these nature-based offset schemes fall prey to the very harms they claim to prevent: climate-induced droughts and wildfires that ravage forests and release ‘offset’ carbon back into the atmosphere where it will stay for years and years to come.

False solutions

As part of the USA and EU both launching huge subsidy programmes to stimulate green innovation, some large companies are promoting unproven and unscalable technologies as a way to cut emissions. 

The promotion of hydrogen boilers in the UK as a solution to decarbonising heating follows this path. However, numerous studies showing that using hydrogen for heating is a poor option - less economic, less efficient, more resource intensive, and associated with larger environmental impacts than heat pumps. 

Yet, hydrogen boilers continue to be pushed by industry and supported by the UK government. What’s more, the vast majority of hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels. 

In fact, at the end of 2021, almost 47 per cent of global hydrogen production came from gas, 27 per cent from coal, 22 per cent from oil, and four percent from electrolysis. According to the UN renewable energy body, IRENA, only one percent of global hydrogen production was produced using renewable energy. 

Advertisements for hydrogen boilers and other false solutions, such as ExxonMobil’s algae biofuels and bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), are likely to lock-in more emissions in the near term, delay the deployment of genuinely transformative technologies, and allow big polluters to maintain market share and social licence.

Stop promoting harm

Bans on tobacco marketing are a clear historical precedent for regulating the advertisement of goods that harm health and have big social costs. 

In light of the harms caused by climate breakdown, including harm to public health far in excess of tobacco, calls are growing for ‘tobacco-style’ bans on advertising for high carbon products.

The World Health Organisation and UN Environment Programme have endorsed recommendations for a ‘tobacco-law’ to end advertising for fossil fuels. 

Although with some loopholes, in 2022 the French government banned advertisements for energy products derived from fossil fuels, including petrol products and energy from the combustion of coal. 

Elsewhere, in the absence of national level legislation, a range of municipalities and public transport bodies in Australia, the Netherlands and the UK have introduced local restrictions on advertising and sponsorship of the most polluting products across outdoor advertising, print and online media.

Reversing the climate emergency is proving difficult enough without the advertising industry undoing any progress by promoting polluting products and lifestyles. 

Many are bewildered that so little appears to happen given what science is saying in one of society's ears about the needs for immediate, widespread and rapid change. 

But that could be because, in the other ear high carbon advertising doesn’t just tell us to carry on as usual, but to increase consumption of damaging things. It leaves a big question that demands an answer from regulators: what should we stop advertising to raise our survival chances?

This Author

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, co-founder of the Badvertising campaign, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author on new and green economics, and co-author of the original Green New Deal. Follow on: t. @AndrewSimms_uk m.

The briefing: From Fast Fashion to Fancy Cruises - What Should we Stop Advertising to Raise our Survival Chances? is published by Badvertising and Adfree Cities.

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