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Carbon conscious media: the publishers ushering in a new era of sustainability for brands

With our planet in the midst of a climate crisis, publishers are starting to realise that the way they source stories about our planet is just as crucial as the content itself. Enter a new generation of media that is bringing the carbon footprint of its journalism to the fore and attracting green advertisers in the process.

Have you ever considered the carbon footprint of the journalism you consume? With global newspaper circulation in decline, we’re certainly not talking about how many trees had to perish to get your fingers inky here; instead, we’re referring to how the articles you read online – and the way in which they’re produced – are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Each time you conduct a Google search, or send an email, the transmission of that data pollutes the planet just a tiny amount. That's because it's underpinned by a process that requires millions of physical servers around the globe, each sapping their own energy as millions of other people do the same thing.

The same can be said for when you click on a news story (regardless of whether it’s about Boris Johnson or Kim and Kayne) and the content passes through a series of delivery networks, data hubs and web infrastructure, all before reaching the little blue-lit screen in your hand.

The carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for around 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, according to green French Think Tank The Shift Project. To put that in context, that is roughly the same amount produced by the global airline industry (in normal, non-Covid-19 times).

What’s more, the carbon impact of a news story will often be exacerbated by how an editor briefs it out. If a reporter is required to be on the ground for a global story, they’ll often have to take a flight to get there.

As consumers increasingly embrace social causes, they are seeking out products and businesses that align with their values, and this extends to media brands too.

Recent IBM data from over 18,000 consumers shows that nearly six in 10 respondents are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. Eight in 10 indicate sustainability is important for them. And for those who say it is very or extremely important, over 70% would pay a premium of 35%, on average, for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible.

In line with this, a fresh cohort of publishers are leaning into the rise of the green consumer with fresh platforms that promise a more environmentally-friendly reader experience. What’s more, they’re already courting attention from brands.

A new generation of carbon-conscious publishers

Beyond the Blue Planet effect, the BBC is one media owner bringing the carbon impact of its journalism to the fore via its global commercial arm. Last year, it launched Future Planet, an editorial platform for in-depth, evidence-based stories on potential solutions to the climate crisis. Focused in global reporting, its ethos is built around enlisting local reporters on the ground to tell the stories from their communities who are witnessing the impact of climate change first hand. As a result, travel is kept to a minimum and local voices are prioritised.

From exploring whether the dairy industry can adapt to the climate crisis to taking audiences on a tour around the desert run on hydrogen, Future Planet plays host to all sorts of relevant content. However, there’s a crucial point of difference: each story published carries a figure estimating the carbon emissions associated with creating it, with the BBC claiming itself as the first major publisher to take this step using an independent calculator.

Amanda Ruggeri, managing editor of Future Planet and editor of the wider BBC Future vertical, which is devoted to science and evidence-based features, it's already making a big difference. Between the site's launch in February 2020 and September of the same year, its journalists have expended less than a tonne of carbon on travel.

"That's the equivalent of less than a single flight from Chicago to Los Angeles," she explains.

"If we'd sent a reporter from London to all of the destinations we covered in that time frame it would have amounted to over 26,340 kilograms of carbon. That's almost almost 26 tonnes of carbon saved or almost five round trips from London to Sydney. It shows the impact this model can make."

In the same period the site has clocked up 15 million page views and reached 7 million browsers.

"People are engaging with the content at length, which is wonderful to see."

Brands are starting to take notice too. BBC Global News has just snagged Standard Chartered as flagship sponsor of Future Planet from March to May 2021 in markets including Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, UAE, Kenya, Germany and China along with major cities in the US.

In addition, BBC’s StoryWorks branded content team will produce branded material for the client on the theme of ‘a force for good’, including podcasts, audiograms and dynamic articles. The objective of the partnership is to establish Standard Chartered as a leader in sustainable, climate-friendly finance and communicate its value proposition around decarbonisation and transition to net-zero carbon, which is why it chose to align with the editorial strand.

One Pebble to start an avalanche

It’s not just media’s big boys that are investing in more sustainable media platforms, though. New players have entered the fore in recent years too. Among them is ethical living magazine Pebble which was set up in 2016 as an antidote to the mainstream media’s “reluctance in covering sustainable issues and lifestyle topics” such as ethical fashion, plastic free living, slow travel and permaculture.

Journalist Georgina Wilson-Powell knew even four years ago that these topics would grow in everyday consumers, who want to reduce our their own environmental impact and expect businesses to do the same. Her platform now has 1.4 million regular readers.

As well as placing provenance on projects and stories other publishers might give a “once a year nod,” Wilson-Powell explains that the pure digital magazine uses green hosted servers. In 2019, it gave 1% of its revenues to various sustainable charities including Feedback and Fashion Revolution.

“When we were running events, we don’t print any flyers, use any single use plastic in set up and ensure all our signage and promo is reusable and made from recycled materials as much as possible,” adds Wilson-Powell.

This philosophy is one that has caught the eye of advertisers too.

“We’ve seen huge growth over the last few years, and our conscious consumer audience are at the forefront of eco trends, so we can spot industry growth in particular areas such as eco-friendly cleaning brands or zero waste shampoo, before it becomes mainstream,” she says.

The magazine counts a range of lifestyle brands, that share its planet and people first ethos, across native content, email marketing and social campaigns, as clients.

“I believe in working on long-term relationships where our readers feel like they’re part of the story rather than one off posts,” adds Wilson-Powell. “We like to say Pebble is a family, readers and brands both become friends and we have supported many ethical brands on their journeys to reach an audience who cares.”

However, she believes that many marketers are missing a trick when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are, and supporting ethical, independent media.

“It’s not enough to run campaigns that support causes or fly the flag for your green credentials, marketing teams need to look at where their spend is going too - and use that to help support the titles that are also doing good and working in a more ethical way than many mainstream outlets.

“While everyone is working with limited resources and budgets at a time when the media landscape has never been so precarious, we don’t funnel profits back to faceless shareholders, we use them to invest in projects that benefit the planet and our community and fund new journalism.”

The tricky maths of carbon measurement

Owing to the complexity of both travel and the internet, Ruggeri admits BBC Future Planet cannot directly measure the exact carbon emissions from any specific story. Since trains and buses aren’t fitted with emissions measuring devices, for instance, the team can’t be sure quite how much a journalist emitted on his or her journey.

BBC works with Wholegrain Digital to get a bespoke carbon estimate for Future Planet stories. However, this is tricky too as the technology cannot yet measure for a given click exactly how much carbon is released from the transfer of that data over the internet or which type of device a reader is using when they make that click.

"We didn't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good on that on though, as long as we're using the best science and the best research, we're part of the solution instead of just reporting on the solution."

Looking ahead, the media industry is coming together to find ways to collectively manage its digital carbon footprint.

A collaboration between computer scientists at the University of Bristol and nine major media companies, including BBC, ITV, Sky and Dentsu Aegis Network, will help content providers understand and manage the significant carbon impacts of digital content.

The 12-month effort, facilitated by sustainability group Carnstone, will see University of Bristol researchers working with sustainability and technology teams across the industry to map their carbon hot spots.

The aim is to create an online carbon calculator (DIMPACT) which will be available to any company offering digital products and services, democratising the ability to for media owners to bake sustainability into their products.

In the meantime, Ruggeri says its up to advertisers to support the media owners already acting in this space.

"As the world emerges from the pandemic, the climate crisis will once more emerge as the biggest challenge the world is facing. So for brands that are interested in being a part of the solution there's no better message to send right now than to align with platforms like ours."