For digital advertising to become truly sustainable it needs to address both direct and indirect emissions – and that means making carbon reporting a standard metric, says Xandr’s Luca Masiello.

Digital advertising is heavily contributing to the climate crisis. In fact, the internet and its two billion websites now produce more carbon emissions than the aviation industry. And much of this is powered by digital advertising.

A single campaign can produce a significant amount of CO2 and, with global digital ad spend forecast to surpass $600bn this year, the environmental impact of the industry needs to be understood more widely.  Brands in particular must consider how they align sustainability goals with consumer expectations in order to avoid greenwashing and disingenuous public claims.

The sustainability conversation has also entered the boardroom. Brands, agencies, and ad tech providers alike are beginning to tackle these issues as we begin to see increasing pressure from current and potential partners over their environmental practices.

Addressing indirect emissions

Many businesses in the industry are focused on reducing their internal carbon emissions, when in reality the vast majority are actually produced by a company’s supply chain. The amount of energy required to power servers, cloud computing, content production, and all the other elements that keep the digital advertising ecosystem ticking, means that most of the emissions produced by this sector actually occur outside of the office.

In order for digital advertising to become truly sustainable, businesses must look at both their direct and indirect carbon emissions, and make changes according to what is happening inside and outside of their organisations.

Carbon as a metric

One of the most logical ways for advertisers to start doing this is by reporting on carbon as a metric on all digital advertising campaigns.

Today the industry is used to optimising toward media metrics, or key performance indicators (KPIs), such as cost-per-click, video completion rate, and viewability. And, while much of the industry’s performance KPI focus is on attention-based metrics, there is certainly room to begin incorporating carbon metrics as well.

Carbon emissions can and should be measured. Advertisers should start thinking about directing media spend to publishers and technologies that are more sustainable. Doing so will start to promote the carbon transparency we need in media buying – a good first good step towards addressing the carbon being produced across the entire ecosystem.

As the only player inputting media dollars, advertisers have the power to apply pressure to the rest of the supply chain. By actively measuring carbon emissions, it will force inventory owners to strive to be more carbon neutral themselves. If publishers begin to be measured not only on traditional performance KPIs, but also on their sustainability, it will encourage wider carbon neutrality because the alternative means missing out on media dollars.

Going green

Achieving lower carbon emissions for every ad placement requires advertisers to find partners that enable them to run frequent campaign analysis. The advertiser needs to be able to look at the number of impressions there are on every domain and, from that, calculate overall carbon contribution.

By analysing how much carbon is produced across the supply chain per impression, an overall carbon score can be assigned to a particular domain based on the volume of impressions. The advertiser is then able to ingest this carbon data into its bidding model, and weight its ad placement decisions to consider emissions. In turn, advertiser buying would naturally skew toward more sustainable publishers, with continuous application of that data ultimately helping achieve carbon neutrality across the entire supply chain.

Achieving carbon neutral digital advertising – or even carbon negative – will require a mammoth effort from all players in the supply chain. This isn’t a time for finger-pointing; integrating carbon into standard campaign metrics will help nudge everybody in the right direction.

Making carbon a reportable metric is extremely vital, and is the first step to making digital advertising sustainable.