New standards for sustainability in advertising

For businesses, agencies, and organizations to measure their environmental commitment, they need standards to guide them. That also applies to the digital advertising industry. In response, the BVDW has defined what sustainability means here.

Sustainability in the digital advertising industry
Image: © Box-Milk / AdobeStock

IAB survey reveals the status quo

From businesses specifically choosing advertising formats that have the smallest possible carbon footprint to agencies specializing in green marketing: sustainability is becoming increasingly relevant in the digital advertising industry and will play an ever-greater role in the future. Most experts are on the same page about that. But where are we at right now?

The answers can be found in the annual State of Readiness Report, recently published for the second time by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Europe. As part of this large-scale survey on sustainability in digital advertising, 186 participants from across 29 European markets were asked about the role that sustainability plays in their business and how much of a priority it is for them. The aim was to also gauge how much progress they had made in this area over the past year.

Here’s a summary of the findings:

  • Sustainability is still regarded as a key challenge for the digital advertising industry in 2024, with respondents citing it as being just as important as switching to cookieless targeting.
  • For the advertising companies surveyed, achieving corporate social responsibility goals, meeting client expectations, and complying with upcoming regulations emerged as the primary drivers for their interest in sustainability.
  • 64% of respondents stated that greenhouse gases (GHGs) were the most important issue in their sustainability journey. The following factors were seen as crucial for driving progress in this respect: the adoption and development of solutions and tools (90% respectively) for reducing GHG emissions in their digital advertising supply chain as well as consistent standards for GHG estimation (89%).

The IAB survey therefore emphasizes the importance of standards that are harmonized across a wide range of sustainability aspects. To establish a common understanding in the advertising industry, the German Association for the Digital Economy (BVDW) has now proposed a forward-looking definition of sustainability in digital advertising.

The BVDW’s definition of sustainability in digital advertising

Sustainability has been at the top of the BVDW’s agenda for years. Against this backdrop, the association launched the Sustainable Digital Advertising Lab over a year ago as part of its Digital Responsibility department. The team at the lab has now formulated a definition of sustainability (link in german language) in the field of digital advertising, providing valuable guidance to advertising companies wanting to make their working practices and standards more sustainable.

The BVDW’s definition builds on the definition already outlined by IAB Europe for the European market with the close involvement of the BVDW’s Sustainable Digital Advertising Lab. The BVDW’s definition incorporates not only its own experiences and commitment with regard to sustainability in advertising, but also the experiences of relevant market players.

What the new definition means for green marketing

To cover the complex topic of sustainable, eco-friendly digital advertising to the greatest extent possible, the BVDW considered the entire digital supply chain. In other words, it’s not just about the emissions a company produces itself, but also about taking into account upstream and downstream emissions – from the production of ads to their consumption.

On the one hand, the association’s comprehensive approach addresses environmental aspects, with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions being recognized and defined as a key task for sustainable advertisers. On the other hand, social considerations have also been explored in terms of the impact of actions on society as a whole. For example, the definition especially touches on preventing ad fraud and ensuring that advertising funds are not spent on illegal activities.

Following a rigorous formulation process, a holistic definition has now been published that combines environmental, social, economic, and governance aspects.

Example of emissions in the online marketing value chain:

  1. Creation of content by a creative agency (upstream emissions, scope 3)
  2. Production of the physical or digital media to be distributed (upstream emissions, scope 3)
  3. Placement of ads, including the electricity consumed by servers (company’s own emissions, scopes 1 and 2)
  4. Consumption of ads by users (downstream emissions, scope 3)

The emissions are generally categorized into different scopes. As the example shows, the majority of emissions fall under the third scope and aren’t actually produced by the company itself. However, these factors still need to be considered in order to truly measure how sustainable and environmentally friendly the company’s advertising is.

Sustainability in digital advertising – now and in the future

A lot is happening right now when it comes to sustainability in digital advertising, prompting IAB Europe to recently publish its extensive study on the status quo. The study found that many companies in the digital industry still have room for improvement from a sustainability perspective – but are more than ready to take action. In terms of the German market, the BVDW’s definition could help marketers achieve their sustainability goals going forward, since it makes it possible to accurately measure and compare this important commitment. With that in mind, businesses and agencies alike can look forward to a bright green future.