Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Myth-busting: the key to addressing advertising’s approach to sustainability

By Steffen Svartberg, founder and CEO, Cavai

Because of the nature of digital, ad tech can realistically claim to be the most measurable channel, as well as delivering greater reach than its offline counterparts. And because it is virtual, it’s surely more sustainable and eco-friendly too. Pixels good, paper bad.

But scratch a little harder and we see it’s not quite so straightforward. Every industry is contributing to climate damage, and every sector and every company must demonstrate a commitment to tackling it.

Ad tech’s impact on the environment is two-fold. First, we must be honest about the fact that we are part of the marketing industry, whose raison d’être is to sell more stuff, shift more products, open new markets and fuel the tide of consumerism that’s driving the current situation.

Our second factor is perhaps even more direct but easier to overlook: advertising consumes over 1% of global energy. And for what’s often touted as the more environmentally-friendly option, it’s the serving of digital ads that’s the primary cause of the industry’s CO2 output.

Every ad impression produces 0.08-1.09 grams of CO2. That’s the equivalent of running an LED light bulb for between 30 and 700 seconds. And when you multiply this by the estimated 146 trillion annual ad impressions, you see the scale of the issue facing an industry that’s producing an annual carbon dioxide equivalent of up to 159 million tons before offsetting.

Significant action is needed. And key to this is a collective recognition that our thinking and actions around climate issues lean heavily on misconceptions such as these ones:

1.          Planting trees helps offset carbon emissions. Yes, they’re part of a long-term solution but only when meticulously planned. Current approaches give a false sense of security, but often we’re planting trees that offer less carbon offsetting potential than those being cut down. 

2.          There’s enough renewable energy to meet the demand. Sadly not. In the coming decades, the forecast around the availability of certified renewable energy shows demand will outstrip supply.

3.          Digital advertising creates fewer emissions than conventional advertising.

While conventional advertising is production-heavy, it consumes almost no energy in comparison to that consumed by digital advertising.

4.          Most of the industry’s energy consumption is from buildings and travel. Addressing these two issues may feel like crucial steps, but they are responsible for less than 1% of emissions. On the other hand, ad delivery generates nearly 80% and the act of then displaying them another 20%. 

5.          It’s a straightforward task to reach the emission goals in advertising. Sustainability depends on energy efficiency optimisation, but this is a problem with infinitely many variables. As an optimisation challenge, it falls into the most complex category of optimisation challenges.    

The result is current approaches are having little impact in addressing the issues. But there is a growing recognition and desire to tackle it by the industry.

The Advertising Association’s Ad Net Zero initiative is one, with two of its five action fronts focusing on curbing emissions from advertising production and media planning and buying. We’ve also identified a framework to put the industry on the path to sustainable advertising. But going forward, what’s important is that the industry unites and matches fine words with finer deeds.

What’s bad for the environment is bad for business

On Black Friday 2021, it’s estimated that frenzied online shopping in the UK unleased nearly 390,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. Which is one reason why growing numbers of retailers are boycotting Black Friday, opting instead to focus on how they are tackling consumerism and waste, in line with emerging consumer attitudes.

Changes in buying behaviour are also playing out in the workplace. 64% of Millennials and 67% of Gen Z say the importance of working for a company with sustainable credentials is somewhat or very important to them. And 71% of people working in advertising are worried about the industry’s negative impact on the environment. All this highlights a need for companies to focus on sustainability, both to tackle the climate crisis and attract top talent going forward.

In advertising, sustainability can only be achieved by improving the energy efficiency of our industry’s systems. This requires education, motivation, engagement, bullshit detection, action and – it must be said – sacrifice.

It’s not going to be easy, and easy courses of action will probably have little impact. But the pay-off awaits in the form of industrial, social, global and individual benefits. So let’s all start playing our role to build a better industry.