Understanding IAB Europe’s Definition of Sustainable Advertising

Ask fifty different European advertisers what they mean by ‘sustainable advertising’, and it’s likely you’ll get fifty different definitions – or at least that used to be the case. IAB Europe recently set out a clear, exhaustive definition of what, precisely, should be meant by the term.


It couldn’t come at a more urgent time – IAB’s Europe’s definition covers environmental, social, and economic factors, all of which are front-and-center concerns for the industry today.


For the uninitiated, the Interactive Advertising Bureau is an international organization with independently owned and operated associations around the world. IAB Europe is a coalition of 27 national IABs and over 500 companies.


Their definition comes from their Sustainability Standards Committee, formed in 2022 primarily to tackle environmental concerns.


The new definition should serve as a benchmark for the European advertising industry as well as an inspiration beyond Europe’s borders. Let’s break it down.




The committee specifies that sustainability is about mitigating negative impacts on the environment and on society while remaining economically viable – these are the three pillars of sustainable advertising.


In all three cases, what’s taken most into account is long-term impact.


The committee specifies that it is not holding the entire advertising chain accountable for sustainability, and lays out its boundaries:


Included as being accountable for sustainability are the digital supply chain as well as the technologies used to deliver ads from systems to end users.


Excluded are creative production processes, ‘advertised emissions’, and anything else not specifically mentioned.


The specified exclusion of ‘advertised emissions’ puts IAB Europe at direct odds with the Purpose Disruptors organization. They argue that in order to calculate digital advertising’s impact on the climate, the carbon cost of increased production as a direct result of advertising must be calculated as well. They refer to the pollution from increased consumption as ‘advertised emissions’ and calculated this to be responsible for 208 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2022.


So – let’s break down the three pillars of environmental, social, and economic sustainability.




The committee focuses on two areas where digital advertising needs to focus its environmental efforts: the energy consumption needed to deliver digital ads, and the environmental impact of hardware and infrastructure throughout the industry.


Ad Delivery


Delivering digital ads may not seem like a cause of pollution, but any activity performed on the internet requires energy consumption. It’s estimated that overall, internet usage pollutes around as much as the global airline industry. For digital advertising specifically, a million ad impressions create approximately one ton of CO2 emissions. Check out a more in-depth explanation along with tips for reducing advertising emissions in our Green Your Data series.


The committee specifies reduction of unnecessary energy consumption when delivering advertising. One way to optimize ad distribution that we’re exploring at ShowHeroes is attention measurement, which can help advertisers cut back on wasteful impressions.


The committee also specifies carbon offsetting ‘where reduction isn’t possible’, underlining that the priority is reduction first, offsetting second.


Hardware and infrastructure


From the precious metals needed for laptop production to the energy consumption of servers used by ad agencies, hardware, and infrastructure requires massive energy consumption to be produced and to be kept running.


That can be reduced by repairing, rather than replacing hardware (check out episode 3 of Green Your Data) and, as touched on in the Green About Media podcast, servers can be physically optimized to optimize their energy usage.




What’s meant by social sustainability in digital advertising includes, but is not limited to, responsibility over:


  • Employment
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Data privacy and ethics
  • Brand and browsing safety
  • Online veracity of information
  • Fraud and transparency


The committee specifies that as with environmental sustainability, social sustainability affects people far beyond the scope of the industry’s customers and suppliers – rather, social sustainability concerns everyone in the wider society.




The committee’s definition of economic sustainability is more localized than its definitions of environmental and social sustainability.


It is partially understood as sustainable profit generation over the long term for companies within the industry, as well as their ability to financially support themselves, their employees, and their communities. What’s meant by ‘communities’ is left up for interpretation.


The IAB specifies some examples of what can help achieve economic sustainability: lowering the costs of delivering digital ads, increasing efficiency across the board, and increasing demand for digital advertising.




We’ve made our own pledge for a digital advertising industry that can positively impact the planet and its people while maintaining consistent profit here at ShowHeroes Group. In placing a focus on curbing carbon emissions and positively contributing to social issues in ways that help maintain steady profit, Better Media is in step with the Sustainability Committee’s definition of sustainable advertising.


The Better Media pledge has four foundational pillars, rather than IAB Europe’s three: sustainable media, mitigation of our carbon footprint, protection of data privacy, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.


As of H2 2023, ShowHeroes Group will only be working with companies that adhere to our four Better Media principles.


You can read more about our pledge through the link below.