Clearing up confusion about sustainability

(Photo credit: Unsplash)
(Photo credit: Unsplash)

Without measurement and standards, brands are unable to make informed decisions – and we move much more slowly towards sustainability in advertising.

Ask a brand what their sustainability goals are in 2023, and it’s likely that they want to measurably reduce their carbon footprint across their media buys.

Talk to a few different advertising companies about how brands can accomplish this goal, and expect an entirely different answer from each. Some companies claim that their tech is “efficient” while others offer “carbon offsets.” Some use renewable energy to power their business, while others have changed their algorithms and technologies to use less data.

Clearly, these are all good endeavors to varying degrees. But it’s pretty hard for a brand to figure out which actually helps them reach their goals. Without measurement and standards, brands are unable to make informed decisions, and we move much more slowly towards sustainability in advertising.

It’s about carbon footprint

The only thing that all sides of the industry seem to agree on is that sustainability is important. Beyond that, there is little consensus around how we actually become more sustainable, standardize metrics, or empower an objective third party.

I suggest that we start at the top, with the advertiser. Advertisers have a certain budget to spend, and their ultimate goal is to have a lower carbon footprint in 2023 than they had in 2022 when they spend that budget. 

In order to do this, brands need the following standard information across every impression:

  • How much electricity or energy was used to do something (like serve an impression or fly to a video shoot)
  • What kind of energy was used (renewable vs. other sources)
  • The amount of carbon or other greenhouse gas that was emitted from that energy 
  • How much to subtract based on offsets

Talking about how targeting is “more efficient,” or that a company uses 58% renewable energy, is just that: talk. It’s not what brands need to actually change their behaviors. That’s where third party standards come in.

How to calculate a carbon footprint

Advertisers see the entire supply chain. From the carbon footprint required to do an exotic video shoot with 40 people in Phuket, to the carbon footprint of the computing power used to calculate video conversion rates -- they see the entire picture. Everyone else can be held accountable for their small part of the picture through a standard carbon footprint measurement. 

This will help brands make much more informed choices. For example, an animated digital ad designed on a single computer uses a lot less carbon than the commercial filmed in Phuket that requires global flights, tons of high-wattage bulbs and hours and hours of footage. The commercial is also going to be a much bigger file, so it will use a lot more data (i.e. electricity) to run it in a campaign, adding to its carbon footprint.

However, there’s a good chance that the commercial performs really well. All of this information allows a brand to make a decision. If it wants to stick with the video, it can look for ways to reduce its carbon footprint along the chain, from production to new ad serving technologies. 

We need companies to standardize and report on all of this. Early solutions like Scope3 can validate the amount of carbon used by a particular digital ad campaign. But we also need to account for everything from high-budget productions to the electricity used to run servers and keep the lights on at the office. New measurement requirements will be imposed on advertisers both at the corporate and government level, and brands that are ready will have a much easier time adapting. 

Let’s get ahead of this and work together now to set standards. Let’s use a common approach that accounts for carbon footprint in a way that helps brands, and helps our planet. 

Ben Riley is GM, U.S. at SeenThis.

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