sustainable advertising

A greener future for sustainability and digital marketing

October 2022

A recent study worked out that if the internet were a country, it would rank as the 6th biggest polluter. Digital activity makes up 4% of global carbon emissions – more than the whole aviation industry. Most of this hefty carbon footprint comes from electricity used to run servers that power the zillions of weird and wonderful functions of the internet. 

Our internet habits are filthy (not in the way you think)

Heavy-duty activities such as multiplayer games, machine learning processes, real-time bidding, and Metaverse universes aren’t set to slow down any time soon. With the internet’s carbon emissions predicted to double by 2025, it’s no wonder the sustainable movement is coming to clean up digital. 

Adland contributes heavily to these online carbon emissions. A typical ad campaign can emit 5.4 tonnes of CO2, while every year in the UK promotional emails emit a further 2 million. The rise of internet users + more daily screen time per head + plus blooming digital spaces mean advertising’s potential (and its potential carbon emissions) are growing. As is the urgency for sustainability in digital marketing.

What is digital sustainability?

Sustainable digital marketing refers to using promotional media and programmatics in an environmentally friendly way. The good thing is, it’s becoming easier to do so. Various green initiatives are starting to ripen and help brands calculate digital emissions and the environmental impact of their ads. 

Initiatives such as AdNetZero – the advertising industry’s response to the climate emergency, and measurement solutions such as the one offered by AdGreen – a company designing a carbon footprint calculator and specialist training for advertising producers, are both aiming to reduce the carbon cost of campaigns. There are also small but mighty steps brands can already take to do their part for the movement and become more digitally sustainable, including: 

Partnering up for good

Keep an eye on the green credentials of media owners and partners who you collaborate with for your ads. Collaborate with those who have low carbon emissions or offset them. 

Keeping your tech stack slick

Simplify your tech stack. This will help to reduce the number of processes needed between creating and delivering an ad. Fewer tools means fewer reports to integrate, and ends up in less emissions. 

Lowering your data load

Opt for shorter ads over long one and lighter ad formats over heavy ones. The overall emissions involved in serving the ad – loading time, battery life of the receiving device – are reduced. As well as working wonders for user experience, TikTok and friends have popularised short formats and made them easy to jump on.

High-quality leads to low-quantity

More unique, attention-grabbing ads need to run for less time in order to be effective, resulting in a reduced environmental impact. You can have your cake and eat it too: ads that stand out from the crowd benefit consumers, the planet and your business. 

Paying attention to attention

Use attention data (how long an ad is viewed in a foreground browser tab, for example) over impressions, in order to focus on low-clutter, high-attention placements for targeting. This generates better results for energy consumption, carbon emissions, brand sales and user experience – all in one fell swoop.

98% of consumers feel that brands are responsible for initiating positive change, meaning they’ll respect authentic, planet-conscious behaviour like this from brands. 

For a spark of inspiration, Car brand Volkswagen motored up their marketing to show what being a carbon-conscious brand can look like. They transformed their website into a “Carbon-Neutral Net”, removing all colour and replacing images with a mosaic of coded text characters. This carbon calculator told us the site now only produces 0.022 grams of CO2 per view. We hope to see more brands taking initiative like this for their own sustainable digital marketing actions. 

The future’s bright, the future’s green

What would we like to see in the future? More research into the environmental impact of the digital advertising ecosystem as well as the launch of many more sustainable digital solutions that will help brands measure, offset and be conscious of the carbon cost of their ad campaigns.  

Illustration: Monika Sroga

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