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We need to ditch deceptive instincts and tackle adtech’s sustainability problem

It may not be easy being green, but it is still so very important

Advertisers aren’t really sure just how much energy the ads they buy use or the exact damage this does to the world. Steffen Svartberg, founder and chief executive officer, Cavai, points out we know it’s a lot – and the industry needs to face it sooner rather than later.

It’s not easy being green, as Kermit the Frog once put it, and that’s probably why as long as there has been awareness of human-made climate damage, there have been companies attempting to dodge the problem by deflecting attention from their own contribution to it.

As our collective understanding of the causes of the crisis expands to include the entire apparatus of consumerism – from production and distribution right down to a web search or an ad impression – two things are clear: no industry is innocent, and where there is guilt there is corporate greenwashing.

We know that the instinct of brands, advertising professionals and people in general can be to create a deceptive narrative rather than make real changes to their processes. The adtech space is not immune. It is common, particularly at year-end, to see marketing strategies, communications and annual reports relating to sustainability, and it is also clear that their purpose is invariably to achieve improved economic returns without going into the messy business of addressing the true problem.

The root cause of the human-made environmental catastrophe is the consumption habits of all of us – including consumers, brands, tech vendors and media partners. From a purist perspective, advertising, whether offline or online, is part of an unsustainable culture, as it exists to encourage consumers to buy more stuff. In its own right, advertising consumes more than 1% of global energy, and is a major cause of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The great majority of this is due to online advertising.

Adtech uses electricity and other energy sources to serve ads in huge quantities. Our own research finds that a single ad impression produces between 0.08 and 1.09 grams of CO2, before offsetting. That’s the equivalent of driving an electric car between 0.4 and 9.65 meters, or running an LED light bulb for between 30 and 700 seconds. For every ad impression. The industry is slow to measure this, but it is moving on it, focusing on carbon output per impression.

Of course, our belief is that we need advertising, at some level. Making information widely accessible is one of the most effective ways to reduce our collective environmental footprint, and improving energy efficiency through innovation that destroys business value as a side effect is not the way to save the world.

At the same time, a reality check is needed, and it requires us to put aside our commercial imperatives for a moment. Sustainability should be a default, not a pricing or commercial opportunity. If we simply treat it as a commercial opportunity, we are doing exactly the thing that put the planet in its current situation: prioritizing mindless commerce over its long, long tail of consequences.

So how do we smoke out the greenwashers – the ones who raise the subject in order to hide their inaction behind trivial gestures? And how, come to that, should sustainability actually be approached in online advertising?

There is no satisfyingly simple answer (which, incidentally, is a good way to spot the greenwashers: if it sounds easy, then it probably doesn’t add up to much).

In practice, ecological sustainability in advertising can only be achieved through improving the energy efficiency of advertising systems. That entails education, motivation, engagement, bullshit detection and, of course, action and sacrifice.

Stopping what we are doing requires truly knowing what we are doing. It requires us to understand, for example, that energy consumption in advertising is a function of five factors:

  • Size – the number of bytes in the advertisement, the connections required for delivering it, the data associated with it and so forth

  • Duration – the length of time required by each computational process, such as the delivery of an advertisement to a mobile device

  • The number of connections required to complete a given computational process. If many tracking tags are required for displaying an ad, then many connections are required

  • Frequency – if a report needs to be updated every minute, then all the computational processes and objects related to that report have to be run repeatedly at that interval

  • Distance – how close the sending and receiving parties can be brought

Serious movements toward sustainability need to crunch numbers like these, and many others; we have identified five sets of five steps as a framework to sustainable advertising.

This is not about preaching, but trying to get down to real data, rather than just audience-pleasing gestures. And what it’s definitely not about is driving commercial growth for short-term advantage. If brands, agencies and adtech providers actually care as much as they want us to believe they do, the time has come for real, standardized solutions – not just fine words.

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