4 Ways to Master Sustainable Advertising

Digital advertising doesn’t look like it pollutes. It can be conceptualized, created, and sent out without a single sheet of paper being used in the process, and fleets of sleek MacBooks look a lot less problematic than factory chimneys that pierce the sky. The industry has a ‘clean’ image both to outsiders, who may think there are bigger pollutants to worry about, and digital advertisers themselves who may never consider the need for sustainable digital advertising.


The misconception is tied to a general lack of understanding of, and focus on, the internet’s contributions to climate change. While you’ve likely seen or highlighted yourself the impact that commercial flying has on the climate, you’ve probably seen a lot less about how global internet usage produces comparable amounts of pollution to air transportation. (That stat is set to double by 2025, too.)


Digital advertising is a huge part of the internet – users see it every day, it keeps websites running, and makes the internet the commercial space that it’s known to be. If we’re to talk about the impact that the internet has on the climate, we need to be talking about digital advertising in particular as well – especially given the industry’s projected growth of over $270 billion over the next four years.


It’s also an industry that’s under the ESG microscope. ESG compliance is no longer a “nice-to-have” but a must have for any company wanting to grow its businesses and relationships – not only in the digital industry, but in all lines of business, from fashion to banking to manufacturing. Just take a look at sites like Investors.com where the Top 100 Businesses are listed for the best ESG stocks.


So how can marketers master sustainable advertising and make sure that the industry’s impact on the climate is positive, not negative, going forward?


One of the advertising industry’s biggest barriers to sustainability is a lack of precise understanding of its impact. We have data about the impact that internet usage has as a whole – which gives a sense of scale – but data about the digital advertising industry and its individual companies, in particular, is less forthcoming. That needs to change.


For our industry to change as a whole, emissions from the companies within it need to be put under the microscope. That means going as far as measuring the carbon output from individual campaigns and precisely understanding the planetary cost of producing the equipment our industry runs on.


As Advertising Association CEO Stephen Woodford stated, “Until you start measuring, you can’t hope to reduce the carbon.” The AA is part of the Ad Net Zero project, an international program for reducing digital advertising’s emissions to Net Zero. Measurement is the first step taken by every company working with the Ad Net Zero project, and it should be the first step for everyone working in the digital space. Ad Net Zero counts industry titans among its founders, including our friends in dentsu with whom we had a thought-provoking conversation about sustainability earlier this year.


Advertising influences people’s spending habits for profit maximization – if digital advertising’s to live up to its responsibilities, it needs to influence people for environmental change, too. That goes beyond spending habits, as advertising can influence direct action and awareness as well.


Just take a look at this heart-wrenching ad about palm oil, from the UK supermarket chain Iceland – you’ll probably find that it provokes you to review your own choices next time you’re at the supermarket!


Or have a look at sunglass brand O’Neill’s ingenious single-use plastic campaign, which subverts expectations by pointing out the material similarities between plastic designer sunglasses, treasured for a lifetime, and plastic bottles, which are discarded immediately. It’s bound to get you thinking differently about recycling.


It might seem counter-intuitive, but some of the best work that the ad industry can do comes from not working – at least, not working for profit.


Global strikes such as #FridaysForFuture are important for the ad industry for the same reason that they’re important for everyone else: The future of our liveable planet depends on our response to climate change. Without drastic change, digital advertising might not even have an opportunity to exist in the coming generations. Drastic change usually doesn’t happen without drastic actions.


By using time on strike to create and/or push non-profit advertising that spreads awareness and encourages further radical action for the climate, the digital advertising industry can make significant waves.


Every action helps – even small, everyday activities or initiatives from individual employees can contribute to a company-wide eco-friendly consciousness.


We’re partnered with Alaya, whose employee engagement platform sets each of us at ShowHeroes on more eco-conscious paths. Daily challenges promote sustainable activities and education – as we’ve found it’s not only good for the planet but good for our personal wellbeing, too!


For the month of August, each of our global teams will be participating in a challenge or team meetup that focuses on a sustainable practice or activity.


Real conviction is key to making your sustainable advertising truly sustainable – not only will half-measures or insincerity be detrimental to sustainability efforts, but the likelihood is that wary consumers will sniff out greenwashing attempts.


Perhaps it’s good to think about it this way: In this day and age of consumer mindfulness, it takes tremendous creative effort to produce convincing but insincere ‘sustainable’ advertising that won’t receive deserving backlash about greenwashing.


It takes less effort to take genuine steps towards actual sustainability. That comes with the benefits of consumer trust, increased loyalty from environmentally concerned employees, and the knowledge that you’re positively contributing to the planet, too.