What Are the Hidden Environmental Impacts of Online Advertising?

Online ads aren’t printed on paper or vinyl. They’re not transported to physical locations either. Yet, they do still have a carbon footprint. Some researchers say it’s actually pretty big because everything about them involves electricity. 

“The energy burden of online advertising is considerable and urgently requires attention from researchers and industries,” one popular study on the topic says. 

Today there’s momentum around finding ways to measure and reduce carbon emissions in the digital supply chain. But, not surprisingly, the issue is more than a little complicated.  

The Connection between Online Advertising and Carbon Emissions

A lot of energy is used throughout an ad’s lifecycle, from its production through its viewing. Chances are, a chunk of that electricity is generated by a fossil fuel like coal, natural gas, or petroleum that releases carbon dioxide when it’s burned.

Here are some basic ways online advertising requires energy:

  • Electricity runs the software you use to put together digital campaigns.
  • The “cloud” you store your work in is actually a server in a data center that uses electricity.
  • If the creative calls for a shoot, something is powering that equipment and the transportation to get there. 
  • Once an ad is produced, getting it in front of consumers through programmatic means brings energy-heavy adtech players into the picture.
  • Energy powers the devices of users who are served the ad impression.

The martech consultancy fifty-five says a fictitious digital ad campaign with video, social, display, and search ads can produce 323 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from sources like creative production, content views, programmatic display, auction calculations, and data storage for targeting audiences. That amount, it says, is roughly the annual carbon footprint of 16 Americans. 

Collaborative Efforts to Tackle Media Decarbonization 

The advertising ecosystem has begun recognizing the negative impacts of content creation. An August 2022 study from Good-Loop, which calls itself a purpose-powered advertising platform, found the following results:

  • 76% of U.S. marketers believe the digital advertising industry needs to do more to help reduce carbon emissions.
  • 34% feel they’re under pressure from their customers to reduce carbon emissions while 28% feel pressure from their shareholders. 
  • 51% of U.S. marketers say their organization plans to reach net zero in digital advertising at some point in the future, but only 24% have set targets. 
  • 61% of U.S. marketers say they’re tracking the carbon emissions generated by their digital advertising campaigns.

Marketers in the U.S. aren’t the only ones seeing a potential link between advertising and climate change. 

In 2020, the United Kingdom’s advertising industry launched Ad Net Zero “for immediate, collective industry action to help achieve real net zero carbon emissions from the development, production, and media placement of advertising by the end of 2030.” It focuses on advertising in general (including print, TV, video on demand, and out-of-home), not just digital advertising.

The effort’s five-point action plan includes having advertisers, agencies, and production companies commit to measuring and reducing their impacts on the environment. 

The group announced an international expansion to the United States and European Union at the most recent Cannes Lions festival in June 2022. Among those joining the effort are the U.S.’s three top advertising trade associations, the ANA, 4A’s, and IAB, and a number of large advertising agency holding companies.

Many Ways to Calculate Emissions in Online Advertising Today

Measuring and reducing the emissions of campaigns aren’t easy. One reason is because there are lots of ways to do the measuring.

Good-Loop found 45% of respondents are using a carbon calculator they built in-house. Another option is to use a calculator associated with Ad Net Zero from AdGreen, an advertising production sustainability initiative. 

Companies can also hire experts to do the calculations. Scope3, for example, is a startup that helps businesses measure emissions from across the media and advertising supply chain. 

Meanwhile, the WPP-owned media agency GroupM has its own ideas about how to measure the carbon footprint of ad campaigns “from development to delivery.” 

In July 2022, it released a report containing the parameters, data inputs, and methodology that will be the foundation of what it calls “the industry’s most robust global carbon calculator.” It plans to debut that calculator to GroupM clients later this year. 

The emissions that are attributed to certain activities will be factored into the calculations. For a digital video campaign, for example, GroupM notes these activities could include content production and related goods and services like transportation and catering. Cloud storage, internet transmission of an ad, programmatic delivery, and resolution of the ad on the end user’s device are other potential activities. 

The agency thinks its methodology can help standardize measurement for the industry. “Having different standards across companies, platforms, and markets is delaying meaningful action,” GroupM Global CEO Christian Juhl said in a press release. “By sharing this global framework, we hope to begin aligning our industry behind a consistent set of standards that will create clear goals and incentives for rapidly decarbonizing the media supply chain.”

An Industry Inconsistency

Another element of Ad Net Zero’s action plan is to “use the power of advertising to accelerate the switch to more sustainable products and services for consumers.” That complicates the picture for agencies that work for fossil fuel companies, like GroupM’s parent, WPP. 

Today some voices are going further than just pushing to make ad production more sustainable. Clean Creatives, for example, calls itself “a movement of advertisers, PR professionals, and their clients cutting ties with fossil fuels.” Its website states, “One campaign for a fossil fuel client can undo all of an agency’s sustainability gains.”

Notably, frustration about fossil fuels advertising was also on display at Cannes this year when Greenpeace staged a protest.

What Are Some Ways Your Company Can Reduce Its Carbon Footprint? 

Becoming more eco-friendly is a long-term commitment, but here are some initiatives you can take today:

  • Buy carbon offsets.
  • Use renewable energy in your workplace, and work with partners that do as well, including your cloud service provider.
  • Be vigilant about ad fraud, which wastes resources, including energy.
  • Consider the environmental impact of various creative options. Fifty-five notes that video is the “heaviest” of advertising formats and suggests making shorter, lower-resolution videos, for instance. 

How ShareThis Is Keeping an Eye on Sustainability

At ShareThis, we want to lead by example. We’re proud of our efforts so far. They include:

  • Downgrading our offices and switching to a “work from anywhere” policy. This reduces both the amount of energy we use on a day-to-day basis in our locations and the energy used by our staff members to travel into the office.
  • We have designed Data For Good segments that help marketers reach audiences who are passionate about certain causes, including climate change. This can help build awareness about the effects on our planet and offer consumers solutions that will better the world they live in.
  • Our ShareThis Cares Committee gives back to activist organizations using 20% of the proceeds earned by our Data For Good segments. The committee has donated to the Clean Air Task Force and EarthJustice, with whom they are partnering to create a seminar for staff members to learn what they can do as individuals to fight climate change.

We know we still have a ways to go to further reduce our carbon footprint as an organization, and we continue to have discussions internally and with our partners to identify potential areas for improvement. We’re confident this effort is the right thing to do for our employees, our clients, and the planet.

About ShareThis

ShareThis has unlocked the power of global digital behavior by synthesizing social share, interest, and intent data since 2007. Powered by consumer behavior on over three million global domains, ShareThis observes real-time actions from real people on real digital destinations.

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