Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

At ‘what cost’ marketing? Ecommerce needs to understand and tackle the hidden emissions of digital marketing

By Tom Maskill, Sales & Sustainability Director at Webmart

How do we measure the environmental impacts of digital marketing? How many ecommerce brands and marketers can accurately state the carbon footprint of their ecommerce marketing campaigns? It’s estimated that digital marketing accounts for 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about the same as the airline industry. It’s clear that marketing within carbon-hungry sectors like ecommerce has a job to do in reducing its environmental impacts while continuing to support sustainable business growth.

Understanding the carbon emissions from marketing

The first step in tackling carbon emissions is to measure those emissions in the first place. Put a number on it. You need to be able to assess and calculate your emissions before you can effectively reduce them. The difficulty for marketing teams is that many of the emissions associated with their activities are hidden – particularly when it comes to digital marketing.

The carbon footprint associated with traditional print marketing, communications and packaging, is well understood. The environmental impact of a piece of printed material feels tangible. The print sector has done a lot of work to measure carbon emissions and mitigate them. We know, for example, that the recycling rate for paper and card across Europe is 74%. We understand the emissions associated with paper production, and they are well mitigated.

How green is digital marketing?

When it comes to digital marketing, the extent of carbon emissions is less well understood. To many, digital seems like the green, environmentally friendly option. We are constantly being urged to go paperless and to reduce packaging, meaning that any marketing associated with printed material seems intrinsically less sustainable. However, digital marketing does have a significant carbon footprint. It’s just that brands and marketers are far removed from those carbon emissions. Digital collateral is stored remotely in ‘the cloud’. But what is the cloud? In reality, it comprises vast warehouses filled with servers powered by fossil-fuel generated electricity, and cooled by energy-hungry air-conditioning systems.

Not only do these energy-intensive data centres host digital marketing campaigns and social media posts generated daily, but they also store all of the archived campaigns, presentations, emails and all manner of other digital collateral produced over the years. Digital marketing has grown exponentially since the pandemic. And with ecommerce accounting for 30% of UK retail – and expected to grow by 56% globally in the years ahead – there is no sign of the digital marketing tsunami abating.

Need for greater carbon literacy

As I’ve suggested, the problem is that these emissions are largely hidden – far removed from the marketing teams that generate them. That means the first step in tackling carbon emissions from marketing must be to raise awareness.

There are lots of great carbon literacy training courses available, which provide an excellent foundation for introducing sustainable improvements. Training within marketing teams, and in all areas within businesses, is necessary to get people on board. We need to encourage people in all departments to challenge their supply chains, question their processes, and generate ideas to improve sustainability. This is especially true of ecommerce brands that champion sustainability. Consumers are looking to brands to take action on sustainability and brands can’t continue to ignore hidden emissions just because they are out of sight.

Connect sustainability to commercial success

Marketers and the businesses they serve can really start to win when they link sustainability with commercial performance. We need to think about optimising businesses around environmental targets rather than purely financial ones. Why not start measuring marketing campaigns in terms of ‘carbon cost per acquisition’, or the ‘return on carbon emitted’ – rather than the financial cost per acquisition or the return on marketing spend. By linking environmental goals with commercial success, businesses can begin to grow in ways that are more sustainable.

The work we’ve done to develop carbon-calculation tools for both traditional and digital marketing have helped us to identify ways to make marketing more sustainable. The rise in digital marketing has resulted in a tendency to generate large volumes of content to throw into social media and digital channels, in the hope that some of it gets noticed. It means that a great deal of digital content simply misses the mark, resulting in a staggering amount of waste.

Sustainable marketing is better marketing

To become more sustainable, marketers need to go back to being more targeted; choosing the right channels and messages to appeal to specific customer and stakeholder groups. Good old-fashioned well-targeted, well-conceived and accurately executed marketing is the most sustainable marketing – because it generates less waste as well as being more effective.

Ultimately, if you can deliver better marketing campaigns that reach your audience in a timely manner and inspire the behaviours that you’re looking for, that is one of the fastest ways to become more sustainable and commercially successful.

There are now carbon-calculation tools that enable you to measure the carbon emissions associated with all types of marketing activity – so you can back up your claims of sustainability with verifiable figures. And when you know the extent of emissions associated with your campaigns, you can do more within your business to mitigate those impacts or offset them in the most effective ways. That’s good for marketing, good for business and good for the plane