Standardise, Optimise, Educate: How to Tackle Advertising’s Environmental Impact

Sustainability has become one of the biggest concerns for consumers and businesses alike in recent years. The advertising industry is no exception, with firms from across the sphere urging for greater action to be taken to tackle the negative impact it has on the climate. Their calls are not unfounded: recent research suggests that online advertising accounts for between 10% and 20% of the total total energy consumption of internet infrastructure. 

Following Earth Day 2023, we looked back over our sustainability coverage, and picked out the best pieces of wisdom members of the industry shared with us about how to address some of the key challenges to achieving sustainability.

Implement a standardised measure of emissions

A common complaint from figures across the industry is that there is a lack of transparency when it comes to measuring and reporting emissions. Some consider this opaqueness to be down to greenwashing by some companies, a cynical tactic of exaggerating their sustainability efforts in order to appeal to increasingly environmentally-conscious consumers. R/GA’s Bayyina Black says that her experience as a judge for impact-based awards revealed that many initiatives are “largely performative. Once you peel back the curtain, you see it’s not really making much of an impact.” 

However, others note that it’s currently difficult for many firms to be transparent because the industry doesn’t have a clear set of universal standards in place to accurately measure carbon. Rather than trying to obscure their output, members of the industry are simply bombarded with a range of metrics and carbon calculators that differ in their methodologies and produce varying results. Good-Loop’s Ryan Cochrane explains: “some calculators will factor for the weight of the creative but won’t consider the programmatic supply chain. Others will look at all of that, but not the device type or whether the ad was eventually served. But none will factor for everything that the other does.”

While acknowledging that it won’t be any easy process, there is cross-industry agreement that implementing a standardised set of metrics to measure carbon emissions will be integral to cutting them. As Essence Media’s Laura Wade sums up “You can only reduce what you can measure, so carbon budgets, and carbon accounting, and carbon measurement are going to be table stakes.” Having a unified set of standards established and policed by an impartial industry body will remove the obfuscation and confusion that still dogs sustainability and provide a starting point for companies to begin understanding their output. “We need to be sure that the claims being made are authentic and actually contributing to the cause,” says OpenX’s Priya Bhatia “The only way to do this is to create industry standards that we all adhere to, and regularly demand that any claims made are confirmed by independent, third-party verification.” Once firms understand what their biggest emitters are, they can begin to make meaningful change.


The issue of a lack of transparency doesn’t just apply to companies’ own behaviours, but to the very nature of the advertising ecosystem. At present, the path to buying and selling inventory is bloated, with too many players and too many stages between them. “The way we are creating and delivering creative is a hugely wasteful and unoptimised system,” Fifty’s Alex Hawkesworth explains. “It’s only designed to deliver the best possible results rather than to work in a way that considers the environment.”

There’s common consensus that investing in supply path optimisation (SPO) will help cut down on emissions while providing the added benefit of reducing the cost of running a campaign. Sharethrough’s Richard Ottoy asserts that a greater consciousness of the impact of Scope 3 emissions (those created through interaction with third-parties) will see more companies seek to make cuts to their supply chains. By leveraging SPO to create a more direct path to their customers, companies will “eliminate unnecessary hops in the supply chain, and then naturally remove unnecessary emissions.” While many point to severing ties with partners who provide less value or who operate unsustainably as the first steps to optimising the supply path, Alkimi’s Ben Putley argues for transferring it onto blockchain as a radical way to cut out unnecessary steps that generate emissions and remove some existing fees.

Optimising creative will also go a long way to reducing the industry’s emissions. Being more considerate of factors such as the size, colours, and format of an ad can all help lower a campaign’s polluting effect. “Smaller creatives, as well as faster loading times, require less energy from servers, meaning that they will emit less pollution,” points out Nexd’s Erik Tammenurm. Furthermore, taking steps to ensure that ads actually capture attention — something which will require standardising how attention is measured — will allow companies to cut back on the number of ads they issue, and eliminate the emissions generated by additional creative. “The higher the level of attention paid to ads, the less ads a brand needs to run, which in turn results in a reduced environmental impact,” explains Teads’ Caroline Hugonenc. “Creating a framework for measuring attention will help advertisers to deliver not just more engaging content but also more sustainable advertising as a result.”

Educate and adapt behaviours

The establishment of a universal set of emission metrics will inform industry players about what they should be looking for and aiming to achieve, forming part of a wider education piece that many in the industry say is much needed. With the correct information to hand, all players across the industry can begin making changes that will help them to minimise their carbon footprint, both on a macro and micro level. 

Already, people have become more aware of the vital distinction between the effectiveness of off-setting emissions versus striving for carbon neutrality. But comprehending how challenging it will be to reach net zero by 2030 is still causing many in the industry to feel overwhelmed. “I don’t think [climate inaction is] out of spite for the planet or not seeing how urgent the need to make change is,” says Wunderman Thompson’s Kiesse Lamour, “I think it’s just out of sheer confusion about understanding what we are actually dealing with, about understanding how to measure our carbon footprint, about understanding how to tackle it.” 

However, as Lamour points out, a greater mindfulness of how individual behaviours contribute to emissions and taking small steps to mitigate these can add up to powerful changes. Simple actions like regularly emptying your inbox, sending fewer emails, and avoiding the “reply all” button are easy ways for everyone to minimise their carbon footprint. However, more needs to be done to make individuals aware of their ability, whether through individual or strategic actions, to make a difference. As The Women in Programmatic’s Emily Roberts notes, significant segments of the industry say that training “to effectively understand and reduce the impact digital marketing has on the environment” is insufficient.

The industry also has a role to play in educating consumers about how their internet use contributes to pollution. In their Deep Dive, Sharethrough reported that six in ten users were unaware that browsing the web generates emissions. With consumers increasingly showing greater affinity for brands with a genuine emphasis on sustainability, the time has never been more ripe for the ad tech industry to engage with people about the impact that their interactions on the internet, and with the ads displayed there, have on the planet.