Creating a sustainable media industry

Over the last two weeks, the UN’s climate conference, COP27, has shone a spotlight on the urgent need for decisive action against climate change. Without immediate action, we are unable to maintain the Earth’s ecosystems. Change is happening, and there is more awareness of the problems facing the planet and what we can do about them. Many consumers are making a conscious effort to reduce their carbon footprint: more than eight in ten indicated that sustainability is important for them. This presents an opportunity for advertisers to demonstrate how they are meaningfully contributing to a more sustainable future, which will have a positive impact on both the planet and the bottom line. The obvious way to do this is to look at the business and transform supply chains and product packaging, for example. But it is possible to optimize for more sustainable media activity.

Is the movement online enough to make media sustainable?

On the face of it, the shift towards online and TV media seems to be a step in the right direction when it comes to the environmental impact of media. With fewer newspapers, posters and billboards being printed, this surely means a reduction in trees felled for printing. While this is true, it is important to consider the energy required to power the new digital age of media. The impact this energy consumption has on our planet means that more traditional media types might actually be more sustainable than online.

The Shift Project’s 2019 report stated that digital technology was responsible for 3.7% of global emissions, which is around the same as the aviation industry. The explosion of video is partially responsible for this growth. Given that The Shift Project’s report was written prior to the pandemic, it can be assumed that these levels have since risen as a result of the worldwide reliance on the internet and video services during various lockdowns. The report notes that spending ten minutes streaming a high-definition video on a smartphone (which is the time taken to view approximately 20 adverts) is equivalent to using a 2,000W electric oven at full power for five minutes.

Calculating carbon emissions

Estimating digital carbon emissions currently requires complex calculations using shifting variables passing through numerous owners and so is not easily accessible. Even where it can be calculated, there is not currently a broadly accepted framework and so it is not reliably comparable. Moving forward, sustainability experts Carnstone are collaborating with other organizations to create an online carbon calculator called DIMPACT, which will be available to any company offering digital products and services.

DIMPACT will help the industry gain further understanding of the carbon impact of digital media, giving companies transparency right through to the end-user. With this information available, it will facilitate more informed decision-making around sustainability and carbon footprints from both companies and consumers. It will also help prevent greenwashing. 84% of respondents in a Microsoft study said it is difficult to know whether brands are truly green or if they are greenwashing; 42% think brands should provide clear and comparable information on their products. This lack of clarity could be eradicated with the introduction of DIMPACT.

Reducing carbon footprint for more sustainable media practice

Many ways of reducing carbon emissions also positively impact the business as a whole. One key step that advertisers can take is to reduce their tech stack and potentially reduce the number of tech partners they work with. Reducing the number of layers between steps decreases the amount of indirect emissions and makes processes more transparent and easier to manage.

Another suggestion is to reduce the data load of digital ads. This is beneficial for user experience, driving a faster ad load and higher CTR, and has a positive impact on carbon emissions. Some ad formats and compression rates have lighter data loads, and shorter ads are of course lighter than longer ads. Exploring the different avenues of data load reduction is an opportunity for both improved ad performance and environmental impact.

Finally, a shift towards attention and away from viewability will improve both advertising outcomes and the carbon footprint of a campaign. Producing higher quality, better-targeted campaigns with ‘attention-grabbing’ creative drive higher user engagement and view times, and significant impact on brand lift metrics. And cutting out the ineffective online impressions that focus solely on viewability reduces energy waste, allowing the advertiser to deliver more sustainable media campaigns at a time when the health of the planet is at the forefront of the consumer’s mind.

The major steps that the ad industry can take towards a more sustainable future are largely based on reducing the amount of energy used in the creation of ad campaigns. Perhaps another avenue to consider is how the energy that is used is produced. Could the industry start investing in green energy?

Working towards a brighter future

The ad industry is aware of the leading role it can play in driving positive change for the future of the planet. Major initiatives include Ad Net Zero, the industry’s drive to reduce the carbon impact of developing, producing and running advertising to real net zero; and the Cannes Lions new requirement that all entries include information about CO2 emissions from the work’s production process – using tools provided by Ad Net Zero. These efforts demonstrate the industry’s commitment to a greener future.

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