By any available measure, the climate crisis is the most pressing issue facing the world today. On a daily basis, we are confronted by reports of extreme weather, collapsing ice shelves, and unprecedented droughts, all powerful reminders of the troubling course we are currently embarked upon. And while collective action is growing at a governmental level, this may not be enough. The commitments made at the recent COP26 gathering in Glasgow, as impressive as they may sound, will likely still result in a 2C rise in global temperatures this century – an increase that, as leading climate policy expert Christiana Figueres notes, would lead to a world that is “not livable for vast swathes of humanity.” And even this outcome depends on these climate promises being kept despite growing geopolitical uncertainties.

The risks humanity is now facing have not been lost on the general public, and environmental awareness has become increasingly widespread over the past decade. A recent survey by PWC found that 71% of people in the UK are concerned that climate change will harm them personally at some point in their lifetime, with the percentage of people describing themselves as significantly concerned having increased by 18 points in the past six years. Even more significant is the fact that 44% declared themselves willing to make substantial changes to how they live and work to help reduce the impact of climate change.

This has, unsurprisingly, translated into consumer habits. A range of studies have made it clear that consumers are increasingly willing to factor sustainability concerns into their purchasing decisions. As a result, brands that fail to proactively tackle their environmental impact do so at their peril. Of course, highlighting your green credentials can be similarly fraught with risk, as the continued outcries over corporate greenwashing show. Nevertheless, marketing strategies that incorporate sustainability initiatives and related purpose-driven commitments are vital ways to connect with consumers in the current landscape.

But focusing on how digital marketers can support brands looking to go green is only part of the picture. As an industry, digital marketing needs to take a long look inward at its own practices and ask if enough is being done to limit its contribution to the climate crisis. And the first step is acknowledging the scope of the industry’s problem – something that is all too easily overlooked.

The internet’s ever-growing environmental impact

Many of the dominant metaphors we use in navigating the digital world emphasise its seeming transparency, its tendency to disappear from view. We work, shop and socialise on the web, which connects us with its innumerable invisible threads; we store our data in the cloud, which drifts somewhere above us, unseen. This capacity of digital technologies to facilitate our every whim without impinging on our physical space has been crucial to their incorporation into almost every aspect of our lives. But it also leads to a common misapprehension – that digital activities are somehow immaterial, lacking a significant physical impact on the world.

In fact, this could not be further from the truth. The internet requires a substantial and ever-growing physical infrastructure to support it, from more than a million kilometres of undersea cables to the internet exchange points (IXPs) that sit hidden in plain sight in cities across the world. And this often-overlooked material basis for the web is exacting an enormous environmental toll.

The internet accounted for around 3.7% of global carbon emissions as of 2019 – prior to the massive acceleration of digital adoption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to some estimates, this puts the internet’s carbon footprint in the same range as the pre-pandemic aviation industry. Much of these emissions are attributable to the data centres that provide the necessary computing power to support our digital activities. The largest of these – so-called hyperscale centres – stretch over a million square feet and generate so much heat they require elaborate water circulation systems to keep them cool.

While these energy-hungry data centres are the most direct and obvious contributors to the internet’s environmental impact, there are other factors that must be considered. The devices we use to access the web and the extensive cable networks that transmit data require huge quantities of raw materials, especially the rare earth minerals now commonly known as the “technology metals”. However, mining for technology metals generates significant environmental impacts. It produces large volumes of toxic and radioactive waste and inflicts potentially irreversible damage on local ecosystems. 

For those of us in the digital sector who are looking to be honest about our ecological impact, these wide-ranging environmental consequences of our internet-enabled world cannot be overlooked. If we want digital marketing to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem when it comes to the climate crisis, then we must be honest about the industry’s contribution, which is larger than many would like to admit. 

How digital marketing drives data usage

While there is a frustrating lack of precise, up-to-date figures, it’s clear that digital marketing makes a significant contribution to the internet’s carbon footprint. A 2016 study estimated that adverts were responsible for around half of the data required to read an article online, while a recent investigation by the agency Good Loop found that the average online ad campaign generates 5.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions – equivalent to around 13,000 miles of car travel. As large as this figure might seem, it nevertheless does not include the data-intensive auctioning process that takes place trillions of times per day without an ad actually being displayed.

Given the current trajectory of digital advertising, its rate of data consumption is only likely to get worse in the coming years. Spending on video ads – which consume far more data than image-based ads – grew 79% over the past two years, and they are now widely regarded as an essential part of any future-proof marketing strategy. Many of the cutting-edge strategies within the industry rely on computationally intensive practices such as artificial intelligence, and marketers’ rapid embrace of the metaverse and related blockchain-based innovations must reckon with their potentially enormous environmental consequences.

It’s also important to step back to and consider the broader ecosystem of which digital advertising forms an essential part. While the specific correlation between digital marketing and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions may be difficult to quantify, the industry’s role in the mass adoption of digital activities over the past two decades is impossible to deny. Digital advertising is the economic backbone of the web, with most of the world’s largest tech companies heavily reliant on it to sustain their activities. Alphabet, the holding company that incorporates Google and YouTube, makes more than 80% of its revenue from advertising. For Meta, the newly renamed parent organisation of Facebook and Instagram, the percentage is even higher, reaching an astonishing 98%. It’s no exaggeration to say that without digital advertising, the internet as we know it would simply not exist.

The corollary of this reliance on advertising for revenue has been a consolidated effort by tech companies to both continually increase user numbers and maximise screen time. The simple fact that users who spend more time on their devices will see more advertisements is at the heart of what has come to be called the attention economy. This term, first coined in the 1970s, describes the dominant logic of the Web 2.0 era, in which competition for users’ attention is fundamental to success. This underlying imperative shapes the basic design choices of many of the platforms we use. Seemingly innocuous features such as Facebook’s red notification dots or YouTube’s autoplay function are in fact carefully calculated to attract attention and keep users engaged for ever-longer periods.

Unsurprisingly, average screen time has skyrocketed as a result of these economic incentives. People in the UK now spend on average 4.8 hours per day on their smartphones, with 70% of this time being spent on social, photo and video apps. Some apps have become particularly effective at maximising time per user – YouTube and TikTok lead the way here, with the latter seeing users spending more than 24 hours per month on the app. Most interestingly, younger generations are increasingly aware that the time they spend online is not always a matter of choice. A recent study found that 66% of millennials and 70% of those in Generation Z found themselves spending more time watching user-generated content than they planned to.

Needless to say, this context is important when reflecting on the carbon footprint of the internet in general, and of digital marketing in particular. With over 6bn smartphone users in the world as of 2021, and this number likely to continue growing over the next decade, it’s clear that our digital habits are having a major environmental consequence. For digital marketers, it is necessary – if not easy – to confront the industry’s involvement in these trends, as the attention-driven model it has pioneered serves to spur ever-greater data usage among the general public.

But this reckoning must lead to concrete and positive steps if it is to be more than an exercise in self-flagellation. And in fact, coming to terms with digital marketing’s carbon footprint need not be a painful and reactive process. By adopting a more nuanced approach to how we solicit users’ attention, digital marketers can not only help contribute to reducing the industry’s ecological impact but also proactively explore more effective and engaging ways to reach their audience.

The ecological benefits of optimising your campaigns

On the surface, the idea of moving away from marketing strategies based on maximising attention – be this defined in terms of reach, engagement, or some other metric – may seem challenging at best and self-destructive at worst. But in the context of wider shifts in consumer sentiment toward the industry, it begins to seem like a necessity. GroupM’s “Consumer Trust in Digital Marketing” report found that 37% of respondents considered digital ads too intrusive, while 32% said there were simply too many of them. More than a quarter of UK consumers think digital advertising is getting worse, and 54% consider it to be ineffective. Kantar’s 2021 Media Reactions study found that customers are still less positive about online ads than those delivered through offline channels – a gap that has “stubbornly refused to close” over the two decades that the study has been conducted.

Coupled with the growing use of ad blockers – 40% of people in the US now use one according to a recent report – this is obviously a significant cause for concern. But if we look more closely into the specifics of consumer preferences around digital advertising, we can see a subtler picture – and one that aligns in important ways with reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.

If we look at the specific views of ad block users, for instance, we find that many are not fundamentally opposed to advertising, but rather have concerns about how adverts can disrupt their browsing experience as well as potential privacy issues. Indeed, 63% of ad block users describe themselves as willing to accept “light, non-intrusive advertising”. Among the wider public, there is evidence that people are broadly accepting of targeted advertising where they perceive it as helpful or where they trust and support the organisation or brand responsible. Deloitte’s recent trend report corroborated this, indicating that brand affinity played a key role in how people responded to targeted ads. For instance, 68% of respondents found it helpful when a brand they regularly shopped with provided sales alerts, showing that, as Deloitte put it, “established relationships are essential”.

In this context, it becomes clear that some of the steps required to reduce digital marketing’s environmental impact are not in conflict with the industry’s continued growth, but instead may actively support it. In both cases, what is necessary is an industry-wide move toward more sophisticated targeting strategies that can ensure customers see fewer ads that aren’t related to their interests. As Google’s digital marketing predictions for 2022 noted, relevance is now at least as important as reach. That means focusing on quality not quantity when it comes to finding and engaging with your audience.

Placing greater emphasis on precise, data-driven targeting at the campaign planning stage will not only help to ensure ads are genuinely useful to those who see them; it will also help to prevent unnecessary carbon emissions by not displaying ads to customers who are unlikely to respond positively to them. While this may make only a minor difference in the context of a single ad, across multiple campaigns it can quickly scale to something highly significant. As agencies increasingly embrace video ads and race to get metaverse-ready, the implications of even the smallest refinements to industry practices will become even more important.

Of course, there are other steps that digital marketers can take to boost their ambitions toward eco-friendliness. Avoiding bloated file sizes for your campaign assets and reducing load times on websites are simple ways to help the environment while improving engagement and reducing bounce rates. For the more ambitious, it is also worth considering the consequences of the increased demand that, in principle, is the goal of any marketing campaign. The campaign group Purpose Disruptors are pushing the marketing industry to adopt a definition of “advertised emissions” that would extend to the “uplift in sales generated by advertising”. By using this definition, they argue, marketers would be pushed to work with greener brands as a means to hit their own carbon reduction targets. While this may be a challenging step in the short term, it may come to the fore as more brands acknowledge the benefits of sustainability.

Conclusion: Toward an ecology of attention

Ultimately, marketing will always be built around attention. It will always be a question of getting people to listen to what you’ve got to say and inspiring them to engage. But this need not mean that digital marketing must be complicit in spiralling screen time and unsustainable data usage. By adopting a carefully optimised and strategically sophisticated approach to marketing communications, we can help to champion a shift from a data-hungry attention economy toward what Mike Follett of Lumen Research has called an “ecology of attention”. And rather than considering this as a demand for less advertising, digital marketers should see it as an injunction to do better – to tighten their targeting, improve their attribution models, optimise their assets, and streamline their reporting processes. Above all, we must recognise that, by doing better, we can do more with less, benefiting clients, customers and the environment alike.