Later this week some of the most powerful people in the world will gather in Glasgow to discuss the climate crisis. The world leaders gathered at COP26 will look to make decisions that will help to fight the disastrous impact our actions are having on the environment.
It’s not just the world leaders at COP26 who have a role to play in fighting the climate crisis. Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN), says that the advertising industry is waking up to the real-world implications of its work.
But as the COP26 summit will highlight, the industry must move swiftly from understanding to action.
Assessing the carbon cost
The smog and fumes emitted by the fossil fuel and airline industries are very obvious indicators of the role these sectors play in producing greenhouse gases and contributing to the climate crisis. You won’t see fumes emitted from a banner ad in the way you would from a Boeing 747, but that doesn’t mean that the digital advertising industry doesn’t contribute to the climate crisis.
An average online ad campaign creates 5.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to figures from Good-Loop. That equates to half of what an average person in the UK produces each year.
“The internet is this very intangible thing that’s quite hard to imagine has an impact, because we don’t really see any impact. But it uses a huge amount of computing power, and that computing power requires a huge amount of electricity, and that electricity pushes carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” said Amy Williams, founder and CEO at Good-Loop.
Jerry Daykin is EMEA senior media director at GSK, who are a principal partner at COP26. He says that advertising’s impact on the environment is multifaceted.
“In advertising and media itself, we certainly have a direct impact on the environment, especially in some of the side effects of production, travel and some of the events we stage,” he said.
For the advertising industry to be able to tackle the climate crisis, businesses first have to be aware of the impact they are having. To this end, Good-Loop has created a carbon-calculator.
“We built a methodology that looks at data transfer, and the carbon cost of transferring an advert from an ad server to a page and then to an eyeball. We open-sourced it so that anyone in the industry can see the carbon costs of their ads,” Amy Williams said. “I always think information and measurement has to be the first step because without that information you don’t know the problem you’re solving.”
CAN’s Harriet Kingaby meanwhile identifies three further ways in which the advertising industry contributes to the climate crisis.
“First, is the funding of online misinformation. We know that Google and Snapchat are the only two platforms that have strong policies around either misinformation in general or climate misinformation specifically in the case of Google. So that means that social media advertising could be funding spaces where misinformation propagates,” she said.
“The second way is that we, as an industry, produce climate misinformation. We create greenwashing adverts, and we work with fossil fuel companies,” said Kingaby. “We create ads that inflate corporate reputation in this space. The third way that we impact the climate crisis is that we encourage consumption through adverts.”
And Kingaby added that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the dangers of funding and spreading misinformation.
“Through the coronavirus, we’ve seen what happens if people doubt scientists and if we let anti-science narratives propagate,” she said. “We need people to have trust in institutions and in science in order to solve society’s problems – be they coronavirus, or climate change. So if our advertising is funding that misinformation, then we are part of a wider erosion of trust.”
GSK’s Daykin agreed that to fully assess their climate impact, advertisers must take a detailed look at the content they are and aren’t funding.
“For me personally working in media, the biggest challenge is to look really carefully at what you’re funding – it’s no use trying to be a climate champion if your advertising dollars are accidentally incentivising climate denial,” he said. Daykin added that on the flipside, advertisers also have the opportunity to actively fund important journalism around climate change.
Tangible steps for the industry
The advertising industry contributes every day to the climate crisis, but there are tangible steps that can be taken to reduce its harm to the environment.
The first of those is carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is a way to make up for the emissions you create by funding projects that either take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or prevent it from ever reaching the atmosphere.
However, as Good-Loop’s Amy Williams notes, carbon offsetting is an attempt to balance out the harm that has already been done.
“Carbon offsetting is like going for a big night out and having 10 pints and getting really sloshed. And then the next day having a really healthy green smoothie. It’s plastering over a wound that’s already been made,” she said.
Companies can take small steps to reduce their carbon footprint rather than counterbalancing it. One example is for advertisers to rethink the time of day they run their ads.
When there is high demand on the electricity grid, such as in the evening time, less renewable energy and more fossil fuels will be used. The opposite is true at low-demand times, less energy will be used and therefore more of it will be renewable.
“Obviously, we don’t want to run ads at two o’clock in the morning when no one is going to see them,” said Williams. “There’s some pragmatism at play. But perhaps we can take a percentage of our hours from the peak 7pm dinner time and run that same budget across slightly cheaper, slightly cleaner space spaces at, say, 6am and 9pm. Just thinking about things like time of day, device type, file size, these little behaviour changes can actually be really significant,” said Williams.
But the Good-Loop CEO says that, given the scale of the climate crisis, the changes must be applied across the board.
“We need systematic change, for example in the way that programmatic works, so that we don’t have multiple unnecessary bids happening. The computational power of header bidding alone is phenomenal. We need much more efficient, much more green programmatic solutions,” said Williams. “We need all websites, ad servers and DSPs to be run on renewable energy. And we need to be making sure that we’re only really promoting products, services and behaviours that are good for our planet.”
Meanwhile on the issue of misinformation, the Conscious Ad Network has launched a manifesto to help advertisers defund such content. It encourages brands to audit their suppliers’ policies on misinformation as well as publishers on their inclusion lists.
“We invite human intervention on this, and suggest that delegating responsibility to machines also isn’t the answer. I think it’s tempting to say we have a piece of technology and that will solve the problem,” said Harriet Kingaby, “And our argument within the misinformation manifesto is actually no, it won’t, you need to be thinking about the systems and processes you have in place to ensure that you’re genuinely investing in healthier information environments.”
A win-win for advertisers and the environment
Moments like COP26 bring even greater attention to climate change and put pressure on companies to take action around the crisis. Those who do not address the crisis may start to lose business.
Good-Loop’s Amy Williams believes that this commercial incentive will drive change.
“I think that enough clients have made commitments that the agencies who don’t deliver a carbon-neutral supply chain will lose business. I think that there is a commercial imperative to take the sustainability issue seriously. And that is a very exciting place to be,” she said, “When we start to see the business benefits of protecting our planet, then we can be sure that big business will pay attention.”
This demand for greener business practices starts from the consumer, says GSK’s Jerry Daykin.
“Advertising as an industry is by definition consumer-driven, and I think it’s through consumers eyes that we’re starting to see how critical the climate crisis is,” he said, “In some markets, there have been rapid attitude changes where consumers, and in turn retailers, have rapidly moved to demand more environmental products and packaging – it’s becoming table stakes to evolve in this space.”
Harriet Kingaby added that being vigilant around misinformation can benefit brands’ bottom-lines too.
“For brands, it will be their public face that appears next to this kind of information, that’s a risk to corporate reputation,” she said, “If your brand is saying, we really care about the environment, but your advertising is appearing next to an article saying climate change is a hoax, then you’ve got a real clash there.”
It’s more important than ever to remain vigilant. Kingaby says that there will likely be an upsurge in disinformation and misinformation during COP26, as the issue of climate change grabs worldwide attention. She says that if brands want to do one thing during COP26, it should be to ensure their ads are not funding any of the harmful content.