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Is the Digital Industry Taking Responsibility for Its Environmental Footprint?


BIMA Sustainability Council’s Maddy Cooper and Jennifer Crowley offer their expert views

Is the Digital Industry Taking Responsibility for Its Environmental Footprint?

Remote working, the metaverse, web3… our reliance on and use of the internet is increasing rapidly year upon year. But because we don’t see the physical infrastructure that is required to hold and power all this data, we often forget that our use of the internet creates carbon emissions too. And a lot of it. Enough to rival the airline industry, in fact.

From storing huge files on servers to the ease and speed of consumerism via e-commerce and D2C, and the scale of content consumption through streaming and social media platforms, our daily internet habits add up collectively to have an effect on the planet.

To discuss just how damaging the impact is, LBB speaks with BIMA Sustainability Council’s Maddy Cooper (founding partner and CCO at Brilliant Noise) and Jennifer Crowley (director of consulting and sustainability at Kin + Carta) who share their advice on the steps we should take, both within organisations and as individuals, to play our part in reducing carbon emissions.

LBB> Shockingly, the environmental impact of internet usage rivals that of the airline industry. Why do you think this is not reported on more often?

Maddy> There’s a sad irony to the fact that, in recent years, the increased accessibility of remote and hybrid working has reduced our need for air travel, while, at the same time, increasing our dependence on carbon-greedy digital technologies. After going to great lengths to dramatically reduce our carbon footprints in one area (even if it was by necessity, at first), people don’t want to be told that the internet – which sometimes feels like the only thing holding us together – is doing damage, too.

But we need to remember that the climate crisis is exactly that – a crisis. And we need to start responding to it as such. If we were able to adapt quickly and find innovative ways to connect because a life-threatening pandemic meant we simply had to, then we can find more sustainable ways of being online because a life-threatening climate crisis means we have to.

Jennifer> I suggest it's a reflection of the lack of genuine understanding that every part of our modern lives contributes to the climate crisis, even the most empowering, innovative parts like modern online healthcare, entertainment and education, and connected commerce for groceries, fashion and almost anything you can imagine. Digital has developed to always be faster, bigger and better much like our wider financial models but now we are beginning to accept the stark risk of repeating, even perpetuating the sins of the physical world in the digital one.

LBB> What is the carbon footprint of our daily internet habits such as emailing, browsing the web and storing things on servers? What are the worst offenders?

Maddy> It’s an extremely complicated issue with multiple different touchpoints – maybe another reason why it’s rarely reported. The internet and ‘the cloud’ can feel like very abstract and intangible things, so it’s easy to forget about all the necessary physical infrastructure behind it (data centres, devices, servers etc) and the massive amount of energy needed to build, power, store and access it all.

One of the worst offenders is video content. It generates ​​over 300 million tonnes of CO2 per year, which is a tricky number for our clients to grapple with, since audio visual content is one of the most effective ways to reach consumers via today’s most popular platforms.

But those of us in media and marketing have a slightly stickier, almost existential problem to reconcile, since our particular use of the internet has a wider knock-on effect on carbon emissions. Recent research by Purpose Disruptors found that advertising is adding an extra 28% to the annual carbon footprint of every single person in the UK, due to the emissions that result from the uplift in sales generated by online advertising. It’s up to marketers to flick the switch and find ways to encourage consumers to consume less, but better.

LBB> You have completed a course and are part of different initiatives to encourage sustainability in the industry. Can you tell us more about this?

Maddy> Last summer I completed the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s Towards Net Zero course. It was an intense task to fit in around work and family life, but a necessary one to cement my passion for sustainability with tangible knowledge and actions.

The weeks afterwards felt like the marketer’s equivalent of coming back from the trenches – it involved weeks of thinking deeply about potential doom and then assimilating what to do to make a difference. The main takeaway was the knowledge that if all major businesses don’t get on track with being carbon neutral or negative (genuinely so, not just buying their way there with offsetting) then our planet will be too hostile to live in.

I’m also proud to be a member of the BIMA Sustainability Council, where I can help to influence brand leaders, innovators and BIMA members to think, plan and act towards net zero and more sustainable business practices. 

Jennifer> My own path has been a curated mix of personal investigation, group learning, academic study and relentless reading. The science is indisputable, yet we have not yet (re)claimed our full agency as taxpayers, pension-contributors, business leaders and nature-lovers. That sense of personal loss, fear and motivation are as important, perhaps more so than any professional credentials around sustainability. 

And the urgency of change that is needed means that pre-competitive collaboration and cross-sector alliances are where real change can take place. Being part of the BIMA Sustainability Council is a privilege. Our collective experience and expertise mean that we are determined to support the UK digital industry through its own sustainable transformation.

LBB> How can we make small steps on an individual level to decrease our internet carbon footprint?

Maddy> Because of the abstract nature of digital carbon footprints, it’s something consumers don’t necessarily feel in control of, so they need to be educated and empowered to make changes. But there are a number of small things we can do to reduce our individual carbon footprints, like culling all unused apps, files and emails from our devices, or using more energy efficient data centres like Google Drive to store our photos and other files.

Jennifer> I love this question because I respectfully challenge those responses that unintentionally put even greater burdens on those with the least capacity e.g., marginalised communities, those living in or close to poverty, working mothers.

I’ve done the research and for those of us privileged enough to be contributing regularly to a private pension, auditing and correcting where you invest is extremely powerful. Another is taking the time to reflect on what we each look to for validation, for indulgence, for status. I vividly remember learning that the average US home (apologies I haven’t found a UK equivalent yet) has 300,000 items. This continues to challenge the decisions I make as I build a home, a family and a lifestyle.

LBB> What steps can companies take? And what initiatives can big organisations and the wider industry start/encourage?

Maddy> When companies go about their decarbonisation journeys, they have to consider their digital supply chain. This includes, for example, only using website providers and platforms hosted by data centres that are powered by sustainable energy sources, or lowering the carbon footprint of individual websites by using idol content, or content with fewer megabytes.

With the dawn of web3, it’s important that companies don’t get distracted by new opportunities that will only add to their online footprint. Allowing ourselves to be seduced by the shiny possibilities of web3 before having the fundamentals of a digital sustainability strategy in place would be, at best, an extravagance and, at worst, a big mistake. A single Bitcoin transaction has the same carbon footprint as 680,000 credit card transactions, so we can’t let ourselves get carried away, creating more problems for future generations to solve.

At Brilliant Noise, we’ve been focussing on the areas of decarbonisation that marketing teams can have a direct impact on. Creativity costs a lot of carbon, and the stories we tell of our brands’ sustainability efforts will only be called out for greenwashing if they’re not communicated in sustainable ways, using sustainable processes. 

Marketers need to ditch their addiction to all things new, and decarbonise marketing production by recycling and remixing existing assets for re-use in future campaigns. By creating content in a modular way, for continuous use across platforms, regions, seasonalities and campaigns, marketers can cut the carbon emitted from asset production and storage, while freeing up precious time and budget. This method is often referred to as ‘atomic content design’ and you can read more about it here.

Jennifer> I am so very proud to work at Kin+Carta, the first B Corporation on the London Stock Exchange.The work and time it took to achieve this precedent was significant and rightly so. For that reason, pursuing B Corp may not be right for every organisation. There are many alternative places to start though; aligning your business goals and offerings with the Sustainable Development Goals is one, another is to make commitments that adhere to the Science Based Targets initiative. Whatever route fits your organisational context, acknowledging and incorporating externalities (a cost borne not by the buyer or seller, but by all humanity, now and in the future) is a wildly disruptive move, one that forces innovation, creativity and courage at all levels of an organisation.

It’s critical that large organisations assume the full responsibility of scope 3 emissions measurement, not just scope 1 and 2. Doing so will force the level of radical change required to meet the 2030 deadline of halving global emissions through the adoption of circular economy practices, pre-competitive collaboration across industries and carbon neutral strategies.

We are thrilled to have just become the digital strategy partner to that collaborates with large organisations to implement and achieve its carbon commitments via innovative tools and digital products. 

LBB> There is currently no industry standard in place, what are some of the recommended rules and regulations, according to experts?

Maddy> The number one tip on our anti-greenwashing checklist (below) is to measure progress. This means benchmarking scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions properly and activating a plan to actually decarbonise, not just offset. For the marketing industry we do need equivalent standards but measurement isn’t easy and there are no regulations, yet. The main recommendation is to create less content and cut the duplication by reusing content multiple times across formats and markets.

A brief summary of our anti-greenwashing checklist:

1. Measure your progress
2. Share your progress
3. Don’t try to hide your skeletons 
4. Integrate sustainability across brand strategy
5. Collect credentials 
6. Avoid cliché imagery and jargon 
7. Do good to feel good 
8. Engage with the wider world of sustainability
9. Be honest with your offsets

Jennifer> The first thing I would say is that the absence of formal industry standards should not be a source of comfort or excuse for any of our organisations. We are perhaps better placed than most other industries in that the attributes of digital transformation (pace, agility, experimentation, collaboration and transparency) are precisely what our sustainability commitments need if they are to be met on time. 

There are robust and credible alliances like the Green Software Foundation and provocative thought-leadership like our own Thread quarterly. I am constantly directing colleagues and clients alike to as a thorough, actionable repository. 

LBB> Are there any brands/organisations that are leading the way in this space?

Maddy> Unilever isn’t a client of ours but its sustainability strategy is very impressive, and they’re reaping the rewards. They have ambitious goals and the whole organisation is aligned around their decarbonisation mission. Even the bonuses of top bosses are linked to their emission cutting KPIs. They’re cutting 100% of scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions by 2030 and will be fully net zero by 2039.

Sustainable lifestyle choices don’t have to be complicated. And neither does low-carbon campaign planning. That’s why we help adidas atomise their content – creating once and publishing everywhere, multiple times, to maximise the impact of campaigns and return on investment. Repurposing assets across campaigns saves time, energy and budget, whilst also reducing carbon emissions. This approach means adidas can tell the story of their sustainable marketing, as well as sustainable product design.

Jennifer> Biased as I may sound, I am incredibly proud of how we are really leaning into our responsibility at Kin+Carta. As a digital transformation consultancy, we are proactively inviting our clients to charge us with positively contributing to their scope 3 emissions; in fact we’ve just committed to saving 1million tonnes of C02 for our clients by 2025. 
I commend the creativity and courage of publications like who are role-modelling ‘Demand Responsive’ sustainable interaction design principles.

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BIMA, Thu, 30 Jun 2022 08:54:00 GMT