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Reporting, Reduction, and Responsibility

How informing consumers of the truth behind the advertising industry’s CO2 emissions is key to keeping brands and publishers accountable in building a more sustainable future

As consumers, we want progress. We want action. And increasingly, we want receipts.

We seek out these values because they are the building blocks of trust and understanding, and because we see them as the foundational elements of creating a brighter future.

As an industry that consumers consistently look to for leadership, guidance, and culture-making, it is critical that we too lead with these values. That diversity, equity and inclusion are inextricable from our organizations, and from the product we put out into the world.

But where does the advertising industry stand on the issue of climate change, and the impact of its own practices on the sustainability of the planet?

As it turns out, our industry has significant CO2 emissions to be concerned with, and has only recently recognized the criticality of improving its footprint and practices. And yet, consumers don’t have a clear sense of what this means, its scope, or its implications.

Imagine, however, if they did.

Leading up to this year’s Cannes Lions 2023, Vox Media and Assembly launched a first of its kind research study centered on what happens to consumer intention and behavior when they are educated on the sustainable practices (or lack thereof) of the advertising industry. Specifically, we wanted to understand where their knowledge gaps are, and how we can leverage consumer comprehension to more effectively push the wider industry to take action towards the long-term health and sustainability of our planet.

The Very Obvious Elephant in the Room

The slow-moving impacts of our changing climate no longer feel abstract; they no longer feel far enough away in the distance that we have to use our imagination to envision it. This relative shift has (obviously) made climate change one of the most important issues to people today.

In fact, the planet’s sustainability has become far more than just an issue to many people: It has become one of the most important facets of how they define their identity. In our study, we found that nearly 40% of Americans identify as being “environmentally conscious”, which is significantly higher than people who identify as being “spiritual” (30%) or “religious” (28%).

We also found that nearly 3 in 4 respondents ranked the threat of climate change as the biggest threat to our future. In fact, it came in the top 3, right behind the more immediate issues dominating headline news at the time of our survey: 2 disturbing large gun attacks and three mid-sized banks making major headline news in April 2023.

It is therefore no surprise that the sustainability of a company continues to be the most important factor in the purchase decisions of young people: 75% of Gen Z and Millennials reported that it is the most important factor for them, more than twice that of GenX and Baby Boomers.

So why hasn’t the advertising industry responded accordingly?

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Does the average consumer have any idea of the extent to which the advertising industry is contributing to global carbon emissions?

Do they know that programmatic advertising alone generates more than 2.6M metric tons of CO2e a year across 5 major countries (US, UK, Germany, France and Australia)? That’s the equivalent of 436.36 olympic swimming pools of gasoline consumed (Source Scope 3).

Or that according to AdGreen’s 2022 Annual Review, the average creative production project generated 4.7 Tons of C02. It’s worth stating that just over 3 of those productions is equal to the entire annual carbon footprint of one US citizen (~16 Tons of C02).

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that consumers have very low awareness of the carbon emissions tied to the advertising industry. Consumers do not fully grasp the scale of the problem because the information is either absent, inaccurate, decentralized or confusing. Ergo, the advertising industry is not considered by consumers to be a large contributor to global emissions.

When asked to rank what they felt were the top 3 contributors to rising CO2 levels, the results fall very much in line with what feels obvious.

However, when consumers are made aware of the actual scope of the issue, that global internet emissions are comparable to global aviation emissions (roughly 5% of total global emission), 80% had never seen these figures and 75% of our respondents found this very surprising.

When people understand something, they generally care far more than they did before they understood it. This latter element, the absence of not only the voice but the action of the consumer, is completely missing from the equation around the ad industry’s sustainability practices.

So while the consumer has been a major driver of progress in other industries, we do not yet have their support in our industry, because consumers simply do not understand the environmental impact that the industry is actually having. Therefore, without being armed with clear, reliable, and action-inciting information, consumers have no reason to care and have no actions available to take.

But what happens when the consumer’s voice is brought into the conversation?

New Information, New Expectations

Americans consistently have high standards and expectations for businesses to conduct themselves sustainably, especially when new information becomes available. For example, after we told our survey respondents about the role Digital Advertising plays in carbon emissions, we informed them that there were new technologies that allowed companies to measure and reduce the CO2 emissions tied to their digital advertising. We then asked our respondents how important they felt it was for companies to prioritize the adoption of this technology.

The results were consistent across generations. They were also consistent with the larger preference for the type of environmentalism that Americans gravitate toward, which is less about reducing consumption, and more about increasing the efficiency of what we consume.

And similar to their preference for brands and products that are produced sustainably, 73% of respondents said that all things being equal between two brands, knowing that one brand was actively measuring and reducing the carbon footprint tied to their advertising would make a difference as to which brand they purchased.

But how would they know if a brand actively measured and reduced their CO2 tied to their advertising? We asked our respondents what indicators they’d prefer in order to be informed of this, and more than half felt a symbol was needed, similar to the fair trade symbol.

Consumers largely wouldn’t know what the label meant at first, but their desire to do the right thing environmentally, especially as it relates to the things they buy, is consistent. But in order for this to be meaningful, it needs to be made meaningful. Americans don’t know what they don’t know. But when they know, they show their support with their pocketbooks to brands that actively minimize their environmental impact.

How are we to proceed?

We have reached a pivotal point in the evolution of our industry, with the urgency around issues of sustainability and climate change now impossible to ignore. This, in turn, has made the glaring responsibility of our industry to do something about it the most acute it has ever been.

And while there is considerable progress being made across the industry, we are still nowhere near a sustainable world of advertising, marketing and media.

​​”This is such an important piece of research further validating the need for advertisers and agencies to seriously consider how and where they make their media investments to be more climate conscious. The good news is that this is an area that’s subject to increasing scrutiny – but also some incredible innovation in all parts of the advertising ecosystem. As we are doing as part of Clean Media Lab, we would encourage all agencies to start having conversations with their partners to understand what they are doing to help advertisers deliver more sustainable campaigns to reduce their climate impact. “ ~ Gaby Sethi, Global Head of Impact, Assembly

It’s clear that the industry is in need of a top down AND bottom up approach to solve this problem; neither of which are firmly implanted in how we operate today. From the top, we need intense expertise, values-driven leadership, industry-wide standards and best practices to guide us so we are not feeling around in the dark under the illusion that progress is being made. From the bottom, we need consumers AND industry stakeholders holding the top accountable. Real people with real demands, ambitions, and dedication to settling for nothing less than measurable change.

The consumer data from our research reinforces this need for vocal, participatory, informed consumers to be a significant part of the equation toward progress. The truth is, consumers calling for change – supporting the businesses, brands, and leaders who lead with action – is, we would argue, one of the most potent catalysts for the reduction of carbon emissions in the advertising industry as a whole.

Progress, even small and incremental, is significant. Informing consumers of that progress and inviting them in to shape it and steer it is perhaps very significant. Steps can be taken by brands, publishers, and the industry as a whole to more sustainably create and distribute - right now.

If consumers want reporting, reduction, and responsibility. What will our systematic industry response be?

Some Things We Can Do Immediately:

  • Join Vox Media and Assembly in their efforts to continue researching and testing consumer preferences on sustainable ad campaigns
  • Support journalism that educates the public about climate change and empowers them to live more sustainably
  • Shift dollars away from inefficient and high-emitting programmatic marketplaces and into solutions like Vox Media’s Concert Green Marketplace, powered by Scope 3, to measure and optimize carbon emissions tied to our campaigns
  • In fact, by not buying ads on the top 10% worst carbon emitting sites, the industry can eliminate 33.5K metric tons of C02 every month — that would be the equivalent of driving a car 86M (85,878,885) miles — 3,449 ‘road trips’ around planet earth, 360 times to the moon, or nearly a trip to the sun! (Source Scope 3)
  • Start leveraging solutions like Ad Green’s carbon calculator to measure, forecast and reduce carbon emissions tied to creative productions

This article is a call to join us in innovating. It is an invitation to put your values into action and to help drive progress for a complex industry we love, on behalf of audiences who so desperately want to be inspired, educated, and equipped in helping us create a truly sustainable future.

Authored by Aaron Tabas, Heather Pieske, Edwin Wong, Sebastian Fernandez, Bria Bryant and Gaby Sethi