There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Until recently, sustainability conversations have centered on the physical. Packaging, materials, recycling, freight.
But the consumer, tech and marketing worlds are waking up to the importance of digital sustainability. We can’t see or touch them, but our digital presence, activities and transactions have an environmental cost. And with the acceleration of the shift to digital, that cost is growing fast. Internet traffic is currently estimated to account for 3.7% of emissions, but it is set to double by 2025, attracting greater concern and focus.
That focus is now affecting the cutting edge of tech. Elon Musk, an advocate of Bitcoin as recently as March, announced by May that Tesla will no longer accept payment in the cryptocurrency, citing climate change concerns (Bitcoin prices fell 10%.) But it’s not just the immensely energy-intensive crypto mining process that’s under the spotlight. Google has been carbon neutral since 2007, has offset its entire footprint going back to its inception, and has pledged to become entirely carbon free by 2030. Amazon has pledged to be carbon negative by 2040. Microsoft set a goal of 10 years earlier. The shift is happening, embraced by brands large and small.
Powering a digital world
Every site we look at takes processing power to download. Images take additional processing, not to mention videos – touted as the star asset of content marketing, but heavy on energy use. The servers delivering us this content use large amounts of electricity to power and ventilate. Unless all that energy comes from renewables, it carries a heavy price for our climate. But brands and their digital suppliers have – excuse the pun – the power to address this. And no, they don’t have to go dark.
IT in a cupboard
Many small and medium-sized businesses can do without owned IT infrastructure; private servers in private locations create unnecessary pollution – not to mention security concerns and maintenance issues. Shared public infrastructure is more efficient, safer and more secure. It can also cut overheads.
Sustainable by design
Digital and social advertising and websites have for a long time been seen as ‘no-footprint’, but that’s a fallacy. Do we really need an HD video showreel on every homepage? Some products command such a demo, or at least a high-res, detailed image. Others, however, would make the same impact with less energy-intensive elements. In fact, often there’d be fewer headaches for designers and brand owners when not needing an impressive image (what’s the tangible benefit of a large and high-res image for a tax advisory service?). Sustainable web design is a growing area, with digital agencies getting to grips with how to showcase their clients while cutting back on the processing power required. The bonus? Site performance improves too.
At the lifecycle end, this also means keeping your house in order; old code that’s no longer required? Cut it out. Site plugins there ‘just in case’ or from a previous version? Clean them up. Viewed per visitor, the difference is tiny. But with consumer brand websites clocking tens and hundreds of thousands of visits each year, the overall effect is significant.
While we can minimize our digital carbon footprint, we can’t realistically eliminate it entirely, and it’s a statement of fact that what emissions remain have a cost. Offsetting seeks to cover that cost through improving emissions elsewhere in the global economy, be it through carbon absorption such as tree planting and coral regeneration, or reduction such as improvements to cooking and heating. While some criticize this route as a ‘license to pollute’, it can be worthy of consideration in the digital sustainability policy mix for unavoidable emissions.
For most brands, much of their digital footprint is reliant on third parties; creative and digital agencies and hosting providers. So it’s essential that supplier procurement takes into account digital sustainability policies and expertise. Graphic design that considers carbon impact, use of shared public servers, agencies’ own energy supply policies – they may seem subtler than recyclable, plastic-free packaging, but in a world of millions of ad impressions, social shares and website views, they make a vital impact.
Overall brand sustainability has never been a more important purchase consideration, or a more prominent topic in marketing – and rightly so. Brands that only focus on their physical impact risk falling behind the curve of both corporate responsibility and consumer appeal. In a digital-first world, are you optimizing digital sustainability?
Sarah Craig, vice-president Europe, Spark.