Sustainability: The Next Frontier for AdTech?

It's all too easy for a digital-first industry like AdTech to distance ourselves from the environmental concerns of the wider world. But climate change affects all of us, and it’s clear that now is the time to tackle the green issue head-on.

In recent years, advertising has seen a distinct shift from a physical world into a digital one. Where once, room-sized printers would spool up to produce full-page ads in magazines and newspapers on physical paper, campaigns are now based in binary, existing only in the digital realm.

This change may have created the illusion that digital media is a greener option – but that’s not always true. It’s especially untrue when we start to look at the way digital advertising drives big carbon-producing businesses, and this is something the world’s governments and corporations are beginning to recognize.

The message across the globe is undeniable: the ad industry needs to address climate change.

Let’s look at how AdTech’s doing it. 

The physical footprint of a digital world

Much is made of the positive impact an increasingly digital world can have on our environment: fewer commutes, less need for air travel, and the many examples of technology helping us make better use of natural resources. 

But the internet has a carbon footprint.

In his 2010 book, How Bad Are Bananas?, Mike Berners-Lee – brother of the man who invented the internet – posited that every email we send produces 4g (0.14oz) worth of carbon emissions

Research has since shown that digital technologies (including computers, networking, and data centers) are currently responsible for around 4% of greenhouse gas emissions – with the internet representing 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gasses per year. 

Focusing more closely on our own industry, a number of companies, such as ethical advertising platform Good-Loop, have produced carbon calculators which allow users to calculate the carbon footprint of ad campaigns. For example, serving 100,000 impressions of a 10mb video creative – a fairly small-scale campaign – produces more than half a ton of CO2. That’s roughly the equivalent of a flight from New York to LA or driving 2000 miles in a gasoline-powered car. 

While not perfect, calculators like these are a good first step in helping to bring digital advertising’s environmental impact into keen focus and emphasize the need for transformation into a more sustainable ecosystem.

Making AdTech greener – 4 industry initiatives

There’s been plenty of talk about going green, but talk only gets us so far – so let’s look at some more concrete initiatives looking to effect real change. 

Here are 4 ways that AdTech players are taking steps toward a more sustainable future for the industry.

#1: Ad Net Zero

Billed as “advertising’s response to the climate emergency”, Ad Net Zero is a UK-based industry-wide initiative which aims to reduce the net carbon emissions of digital media to zero by the end of 2030. More specifically, the campaign is aiming for “real net zero”, meaning carbon emissions are stopped before being pumped into the atmosphere – not just offset as with other “carbon neutral” campaigns. Ad Net Zero was founded by a coalition of industry players, including the IAB, the Advertising Association, WPP, Google, Meta, and more. 

Based around a 5-point plan, Ad Net Zero plans to effect change by curbing emissions of advertising production, media buying, consumer behavior, and even awards and events. Ad Net Zero will also bring accountability to the fore by producing publicly available reporting about carbon emissions across the digital advertising ecosystem. 

#2: The IPA Media Climate Charter

The IPA Media Climate Charter was created specifically for media agencies to take steps to reach the goals set out by Ad Net Zero. To better support the sustainability goals of their clients, the charter aims to help agencies to better plan and buy media through the lens of carbon emission reduction.

In practical terms, the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) charter provides agencies with a carbon calculator for media plans which sets them on the path to more sustainable media buying. With a more clear understanding of the carbon impact of ad campaigns, agencies signed up to the charter can begin to take steps to reduce emissions in pursuit of net zero. 

#3: Green Deals

We’ll talk more about optimizing supply paths through the lens of sustainability shortly, but one industry initiative which is embracing this ethos is “green deals”. 

Available via a number of supply-side platforms, these are essentially Private Marketplace (PMP) deals designed to offset the CO2 emissions produced by that campaign’s delivery. The way they do this differs, but generally it’s achieved by measuring the carbon footprint of the deal across the programmatic supply chain, then assigning an equivalent percentage of media cost to carbon removal projects. 

If you’re a brand looking to learn more about green deals, or begin executing them, some of The MediaGrid’s curator partners, including The Goodnet, can help you get started.

#4: The Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP) 

While not specific to the AdTech industry, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP) is nonetheless a vital element in the fight against climate change. 

The GHGP is focused on the creation of a global, comprehensive, standardized framework which both measures and manages CO2 emissions from business operations.

Created by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the protocol aims to accelerate sustainable processes by introducing more transparency and accountability into the operations of global organizations. 

Baby steps to cleaner advertising

Outside of industry initiatives – which often have long time-horizons – there are also steps advertisers and publishers can take today to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Here are a few ways that programmatic players can start on the path to cleaner advertising when planning their digital campaigns today:

  • Start with measurement. Before you know where you’re going, you have to know where you are. Optimizing for carbon footprint should begin with a measurement of your current carbon impact using tools like the Good-Loop calculator mentioned above. While not yet standardized, it’s still a solid place to start.
  • Optimizing creative sizes. Digital campaigns rely on the serving of ad creative, and delivering that data doesn’t come for free. With the advent of formats like CTV, creative sizes are on the increase, so finding ways to reduce or optimize them will naturally reduce the technical burden and therefore carbon footprint of the campaigns.
  • Publisher site design and load burden. As buyers become more in tune with green media through efforts like Ad Net Zero, publisher revenues may be strained if the environmental impact of digital advertising is not addressed. For this reason, now is the time to review overall website carbon footprint and look for opportunities to improve efficiencies.
  • Nurture direct relationships. When publishers and advertisers work directly together via deals-based tools like programmatic curation, rather than transacting across the Open Exchange, far less data and duplicative supply are passed in the bidstream, meaning overall carbon footprint is reduced.

While there are already steps advertisers and publishers can take to make incremental changes to their carbon impact, everything we’ve covered here emphasizes the need to put sustainability at the heart of product design going forward. 

Finding a solution which solves for business and environmental need is really the holy grail here.

To learn more about The MediaGrid’s commitment to a greener future – or to connect today – just get in touch with our team.

Contact The MediaGrid team

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