The advertising industry has a massive carbon impact. Vicky Foster, VP Global Commercial Partnerships, Adform, asks what’s holding advertisers and agencies back from taking responsibility for their role in the environmental crisis

In the wake of a record-breaking drought in the Amazon, it is encouraging to see governments and regulators fastening the pace of environmental legislation – it’s certainly about time. In Europe, for example, following a series of announcements, including in January aimed at the emissions produced by Heavy Duty Vehicles, the European Commission has announced its commitment to a 90% reduction in emissions by 2040 (when compared to 1990 levels).

While it’s easy for people to understand how things like trucks, aeroplanes, and factories can produce high levels of harmful carbon emissions, what is less widely recognised is the massive carbon output of the digital advertising industry. Yet estimates suggest that a typical digital ad campaign is responsible for the emission of around 5.4 tons of CO2 – the rough equivalent of keeping a petrol-powered car running for an entire year. Moreover, the combined annual CO2 emissions for the UK advertising industry are the same as that produced by 56 coal-fired power plants.

Thankfully, in 2024, awareness of this issue is growing and there is a sharpening focus on achieving sustainable digital advertising. Indeed, with news reports of unseasonable weather patterns happening with increasing regularity, it is difficult to continue to ignore this glaring threat. However, while initiatives such as Ad Net Zero and IAB Europe’s Sustainability Standards Committee have been gaining momentum, there remains a large disconnect between expectations and action within the marketing departments of many brands. According to research conducted by Adform last year among global marketers, only 37% of those surveyed considered sustainability part of their job description. Likewise, according to IAB research, more than half of companies (51%) still do not measure the emissions produced by the delivery of digital ads.

As an industry that has traditionally been thought of as a proponent of positive, progressive action, this lack of consensus is damning. So, what is holding advertisers and agencies back from taking responsibility for the environmental crisis?

Collective action

In many cases, a lack of information and expertise hinders progress in sustainability. For example, many marketers are unclear or rather fear the level of investment that will be required to help reduce their emissions: asking themselves questions like, will tackling emissions require a complete overhaul and refresh of my existing tech stack?

As an industry that is overly cluttered with intermediaries, extremely fragmented, and often less than fully transparent, it is easy to see why some advertisers and agencies will think this. Indeed, publishers often have thousands of authorised resellers, while SSPs buy and resell inventories from other SSPs. How much control does the average brand marketing or agency team have over this whole system? Let alone be able to reduce the emissions of this sprawling mess.

Only through collective and unrestricted action can the digital advertising industry overcome this burden it is putting on the environment and change the game. Not just for themselves, but for the whole ecosystem. This means everyone pitching in and evangelising on methods of success.

First steps

First of all, reducing the emissions of your digital ad activity is impossible unless you have already established the level of emissions that your organisation is currently responsible for. This means benchmarking your current position in order to measure it against future improvements.

While the evaluation of supply-side carbon emissions is very complex, specialist organisations such as Scope3 provide this clarity, allowing brands and agencies to plan, optimise, and monitor their campaigns’ carbon footprint across the entire supply chain and directly enable in the buying process. This will help brands and agencies to critically identify the best, least emitting, and most direct path to top publishers, removing non-needed intermediaries and the wasteful emissions they help to generate.

Such needless overcomplication is exemplified in Header Bidding – the multi-seller approach for one ad placement, which sees the duplication of bids by the number of SSPs and DSPs. Header Bidding means exponential wasted requests and responses from often over-bidding and is a process that should be eradicated immediately. Likewise long overdue in removal are third-party cookies and the emissions associated with them. Being deprecated by Google likely sometime in 2024, brands and agencies should transition sooner rather than later anyway. Not just in terms of frequency capping and wasted impressions but also to enjoy higher quality outcomes. This should be an easy choice. Especially given the ready availability of privacy by design technologies, that can control frequency in first-party ID environments and reduce wastage with no reduction performance.

Technology may have been part of the reason why advertisers and agencies have such a big carbon footprint (we’re looking at you, cookies), but it is also the answer to reducing this impact. By working with the right partners, platforms, and practices, ones that have sustainability, transparency, and efficiency at their core and accept no compromise between these pillars, the industry as a whole can make the elimination of waste a reality rather than simply paying lip service.