Achieving Sustainability in Digital Advertising
A breakdown of the industry's challenges and their solutions
15 February 2023
Achieving sustainability in digital advertising is no easy task, but it’s an essential one.
Digital advertising is also a huge part of the internet’s ecosystem, which as a whole pollutes around as much as the global airline industry does. Digital advertising in particular emits 7,200,000 metric tons of CO2e each year, equivalent to 810 million gallons of gasoline.
The need to make advertising sustainable cannot be understated. In the effort to stave off ecological collapse, which risks the existence of human civilization, all of the world’s industries must come together to secure a future.
Armed with that common knowledge, then, why has digital advertising not become sustainable already?
This is a breakdown of the challenges that digital advertising continues to face on its journey to sustainability, as well as the emerging solutions that are transforming the industry.
INEFFECTIVE CARBON OFFSETTING
A popular solution for the climate crisis is carbon offsetting. Where emissions happen, they are – in theory – compensated tit-for-tat with projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
The world’s most popular carbon offsetting company has been Verra, which runs rainforest-replanting schemes and has sold carbon credits to major corporations such as Disney, easyJet, and Shell. Verra’s carbon offsetting was investigated by The Guardian, Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial and found to be damningly lacking.
In Verra’s system, a ‘carbon credit’ claims to amount to one metric ton of CO2 taken out of the atmosphere – therefore if a company has 10 carbon credits, they can in theory emit 10 metric tons of CO2 and still be ‘carbon neutral’.
The nine-month investigation analyzed 94.9 million carbon credits worth of projects performed and approved by Verra and found that within those, only 5.5 million tons of CO2 were realistically taken out of the atmosphere.
It raises questions not only about Verra, who have approved over 1bil carbon credits to date, but about the largely unregulated carbon offsetting industry as a whole.
Also necessary to consider is the effect that consumers who are misinformed about carbon neutrality are likely to consume less mindfully. For example, many consumers today are mindful about their flight habits, however are likely to increase the number of flights they take if they are led to believe the carbon emissions are being offset.
CARBON IMPACT FROM INCREASED SALES
Measuring and offsetting the emissions caused by digital advertising’s energy usage is one thing, but accounting for the climate impact of increased production is entirely another.
Digital advertising’s ultimate goal, and a mark of its success, is to increase consumption. However, regulating consumption so that it’s sustainable is a mammoth task when profit, not sustainability, is the primary driver for most companies who employ digital advertising.
According to Purpose Disruptors, the uplift in sales caused by the advertising industry amounted to 208 million tons of CO2e in 2022 for the UK alone. That amounts to, on average, 32% of each individual’s carbon footprint.
The issue is compounded by the fact that sustainability doesn’t come cheap, and in times such as today’s economic downturn changes in production to more sustainable products can be hard to factor into a budget.
OPTIMIZING ACROSS A COMPLEX CHAIN
Optimizing the production and distribution of digital advertisements themselves in order to lower power consumption is a complex task for the advertising industry due to the nature of the supply chain.
A typical digital ad campaign produces 323 tons of CO2, but those emissions are spread across the activities of ad agencies, brand safety vendors, ad servers, data management platforms, and more.
Marketers hoping to reduce their carbon emissions can find themselves between a rock and a hard place: Focusing too much on one part of the chain and accomplishing too little, or tackling the whole chain at once and finding themselves overwhelmed.
ACHIEVING SUSTAINABILITY IN ADVERTISING
Readers feeling daunted by the task of achieving sustainable advertising will be pleased to read about the solutions on both legislation and private company levels that are changing the course.
Here’s what’s (sustainably) fueling change in the advertising industry:
TRUSTED CARBON MEASUREMENT AND OFFSETS
Scope3 enables carbon measurement across the whole digital advertising value chain.
They specialize in measuring digital advertising in particular, ensuring accurate measurement.
Anyone with a stake in digital advertising, whether buying or selling, can use their services to save themselves the seemingly impossible task of untangling and measuring the entire advertising process.
Scope3 partner with Carbon Direct for their carbon offsetting initiatives. Carbon Direct take a science-first approach to offsetting, and have been themselves directly critical of ineffective, unscientific offsetting such as Verra’s.
At ShowHeroes Group, we’ve partnered with Scope3 to deliver our carbon-neutral Green Media campaigns, which have their carbon emissions measured and compensated.
Harvin Gupta, Head of Commercial Partnerships at Scope3, gave an interview that goes in-depth into their business and wider vision on the Green About Media podcast.
Cedara is another example of a company that takes a data-first approach to corporate sustainability. Two of their executives dove into their vision for a fully transformed global economy, one that has a revolutionary shift to sustainability at every level, in their interview with Green About Media.
ShowHeroes Group partners with Cedara to holistically measure our carbon footprint, from business operations to ad tech and more.
NEW EU LEGISLATION
On the 5th of January 2023, the European Union’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) came into effect.
The new legislation casts a far wider net on how many companies are required to report on their sustainability efforts. Its predecessor, the Non-Financial Reporting Directive, had a scope of 11,700 companies as it applied only to large, public-interest undertakings with over 500 employees. The CSRD, on the other hand, has far less stringent criteria and covers over 50,000 companies.
While the directive doesn’t have penalties for unsustainable practices, mandatory reporting does foster a culture of transparency and holds companies accountable to their investors and stakeholders regarding their environmental impacts.
With so many moving parts in the digital advertising supply chain, it can be easy to forget that there are always small, manageable optimizations that can be made. These changes add up to paint a bigger – greener – picture.
Some ideas for optimizations across the value chain are:
- Being as efficient as possible with advertising production
If food, cars, clothes, or anything else is being used while filming, minimize the waste and emissions caused!
- Cutting spending on made-for-advertising sites
A study by Scope3 and Ebiquity found that around 15% of ad spending goes to so-called made-for-advertising sites, which have a significantly higher footprint than most other sites.
- Supply Path Optimization (SPO)
SPO strategies not only help make programmatic advertising more effective, they make it more efficient as well, thus cutting back on its emissions. Read more about the techniques being applied in Supply Path Optimization.
PLEDGES TO WORK WITH SUSTAINABLE PARTNERS
As a part of our Better Media pledge, ShowHeroes Group will only be working with partners who adhere to sustainable media and responsible carbon footprint principles moving forward in H2.
You can read more about our Better Media framework outlining the four main pillars ShowHeroes upholds: sustainable media, data ethics, environmental footprint, and diversity, equity, & inclusion.
Refusal to work with companies who are negatively contributing to the climate crisis can have a profound effect, as it creates a market pressure which ripples far outside of the advertising industry.
A CHANGING CONSUMER BASE
When increased spend on sustainability seems hard to justify in the budget, it’s worth bearing in mind that consumers are paying attention.
No matter where on the advertising value chain, a sustainable image matters to increasingly eco-conscious consumers.
However, as we explained in our blog post about mastering sustainable advertising, consumers are also increasingly wary of greenwashing! It’s imperative that any approach to sustainability is genuine.