Global warming due to human activity requires all businesses to reduce their carbon footprint. The aviation industry, in particular, has been labeled a notorious contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the last decade.
Surprisingly, the digital ecosystem now makes up the fastest-growing source of GHG emissions, recording a 6% annual increase each year for the last five years. Digital initiatives account for 3.5% of global GHG emissions, surpassing the aviation industry’s 2.5% share, according to the French think tank The Shift Project.
With digital advertising’s growth powering everything from connected TV platforms, retail media and outdoor advertising, the carbon cost of online advertising has become impossible to ignore.
Five key areas drive the carbon footprint of digital advertising:
- The production and distribution of advertisements — technical teams and transport.
- The shooting process (including sets and energy costs).
- Technical production resources.
- Graphic creation, editing and post-production.
- Administrative tasks/personnel.
Advertisers, large and small, are making bold promises to eradicate the industry’s carbon footprint in the next decade. But the lack of accurate and reliable data on the real carbon impact of digital campaigns has continued to be a significant roadblock to achieving net zero.
In the push for sustainable action, it’s hard to know where to begin. For advertisers, the first step to tackling climate change is determining their own impact on the environment.
Dig deeper: The role of modern marketing in carbon reduction
Breaking down the carbon cost of an advertising campaign
Trusted data allows for reliable measurement, which sparks relevant action. To address accurate carbon footprint measurement concerns across the industry, fifty-five, a global martech consultancy, conducted a study to better understand the carbon impact of brands’ digital advertising campaigns. (Disclosure: I work at fifty-five.)
Published as an open-source study, this is the first iteration of a global and collaborative approach, allowing brands to work together on their digital and energy transformation.
The study analyzed the digital campaign of a theoretical high-end French perfume brand and presented a methodology for calculating GHG emissions of advertising campaigns along with best practices and rapid emission-reduction recommendations.
In calculating carbon footprint, the report largely referenced the Bilan Carbone method, a testing tool developed by the French Agency for Environment and Energy Management (ADEME) in 2004.
This method calculates the emissions derived from all processes necessary for a given item, product or service (i.e., freight shipments, passenger travel, production of raw materials, waste treatment, etc.).
The data from these activities is then converted into the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) generated, using fully documented emission factors. fifty-five’s theoretical campaign leveraged this methodology to measure the impact of creative production, broadcasting over various ad channels and audience targeting.
The study found that a typical digital advertising campaign from a single advertiser produces approximately 323 tons of carbon dioxide or the equivalent of 160 round-trip flights between Paris and New York. A typical campaign includes creative production, broadcasting over digital ad channels and audience targeting and consumption of the ad by the audience.
While achieving net zero may seem daunting to advertisers, the study also found that by making several small changes, advertisers can reduce the impact of their digital campaigns by nearly 50%.
How advertisers can reduce their carbon emissions
There are several ways the advertising industry can reduce its carbon footprint and become more sustainable. Here are five recommendations for reducing emissions without harming the efficiency of a campaign.
1. Opt for sustainable shoots
A video shoot can easily emit upwards of 200 tons of CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent), with transport making up more than 80% of the total emissions. By opting for local shoots or recycling existing content, advertisers can drastically limit emissions from a campaign.
2. Output lighter video content
Video is the heaviest of advertising formats. Reducing the size of a video involves making it shorter or using a lower resolution.
Shortening a video by 3 seconds reduces CO2eq emissions by 20%, while shooting the video in 720p instead of 1080p reduces CO2eq by 30%.
3. Use Wi-Fi instead of mobile networks
Mobile networks emit around six times more GHG than Wi-Fi. Adopting more energy-efficient digital technologies by limiting the use of mobile networks and instead sharing via Wi-Fi can help significantly reduce carbon footprint.
4. Maximize ad targeting
Targeting is a better use of marketing budgets, drastically reducing pointless impressions that needlessly generate carbon emissions.
Processes for targeting audiences have a low carbon footprint. To calculate the impact of targeting, advertisers can use the “gCO2PM”, or carbon cost (gCO2eq) per 1000 impressions.
5. Reduce the number of bidding parties at auctions
The more competition and middlemen there are in the auction process, the more calculations become necessary, leading to higher carbon emissions. To combat this, advertisers should reduce the number of stakeholders involved in the process.
True change calls for industry-wide collaboration. The media plan and data-driven estimates for the theoretical advertising campaign are taken from fifty-five’s real-world experiences. Its use of a theoretical client is a means of encouraging advertisers and agencies to draw parallels between their own campaigns and the study without intrinsic bias.
By evaluating the advertising channels and marketing strategies behind digital campaigns, advertisers can build systematic carbon accounting and an accelerated reduction plan for their media buy. This ultimately creates new standards to decarbonize the industry’s supply chains.
Organizations led by marketers and analysts from all industries have stepped up to lend industry-level expertise to the growing issue of sustainable advertising. Scope3, a leading force in creating standardization around carbon footprint measurement in advertising, is recognized as a trusted source for sustainable programmatic optimization.
The organization has introduced Green Media Products (GMPs) as carbon-neutral media that can be easily measured per advertising campaign. By allocating spend to GMPs, carbon can be priced into decisions for reducing emissions.
There is still ample progress to be made in the advertising industry’s sustainability journey. By working hand in hand and adopting more sustainable practices and technologies, the industry can play a significant role in the fight against climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy.
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