The Guardian exemplifies media’s role in sustainability

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


Sustainability. What is it? What do we think of it? Why is gaining momentum in the ad industry, and why do we need to take it seriously?

If we understood the “mood of the nation” more and what advertisers and the market are focussing on themselves — and what they are gravitating towards — we can help deliver better products with better ethics behind our approach. And even achieve better results in terms of performance and revenue.

Talk of sustainability is growing at many companies, bleeding over into their advertising strategies.
Talk of sustainability is growing at many companies, bleeding over into their advertising strategies.

It’s something a lot of companies are talking about, but it’s the understanding and taking action that’s the more difficult part.

In some industries, reducing the carbon emissions of business is very straightforward and easy to understand. But in the media industry, it’s not quite as obvious. It is there, however. It’s a real thing. And we must face it.

Russell Foxley also spoke at my INMA master class on The Future of Advertising Sales Teams. Russell is data innovation specialist for The Guardian here in the UK.

Understand your carbon usage

Foxley urged media companies to start now when it comes to recognising and understanding their carbon usage and using their position to affect big change.

“In the advertising industry, we’re experts at changing behaviour,” he said. “We can help make consumers make better choices, more environmentally friendly choices, and live up to those values and try to change things within the industry.”

The Guardian is, I would say, at the forefront of sustainability initiatives. They were the first media company in the world to become “B Corp” certified. They no longer use plastic wrapping for their supplements. Instead, they use fully recyclable paper. And they have taken a stand to allow no ads from gas and oil companies. It’s a huge hole in their ad revenues since 2020, but they are being noticed for their brave stance. And they are now attracting not just attention but advertisers who are in synch with this approach/thinking. 

Emergency — not just a warning

“One of the easier things that we did was actually change the language we’re using in our journalism, too,” Russell said. “We no longer use phrases such as global warming. It’s now ‘climate emergency,’ ‘climate crisis’ because we think it’s more reflective of the actual situation we’re in.

Of course, the media industry is a large user of carbon. While companies may think being more digitally focussed has helped make them less wasteful of carbon emissions, Foxley has another angle to consider.

Amazing statistic

“One million video impressions is roughly the equivalent of taking a return flight from London to Boston,” he said. “If we know we’re having an impact, that means we can change it.”

Measuring emissions in the UK has three scopes, set up to give companies an idea of what they are accountable for compared to what other businesses are accountable for.

  • Scope 1: Direct energy consumption: (3% of emissions) i.e. heating and cooling offices, emissions from facilities, lighting the building, etc.
  • Scope 2: Indirect energy consumption: (2% of emissions) i.e. delivery vans to deliver newspapers, deliveries of items coming in to business.
  • Scope 3: Supply chain: ( 95% of emissions) i.e. all indirect emissions associated with and occur in value chain.

The third scope casts the broadest net and is the trickiest one to monitor. If the supply side is trying and the buying side is too, companies can double down on emissions reduction instead of passing the blame to another part of the business.

Advertisers are becoming conscious

Russell sees a future very soon where responsibility will be on media companies to reduce carbon emissions in the supply chain. WPP and GroupM are already announcing plans to go net zero across direct operations by 2025 and decrease Scope 3 emissions by 50%.

He sees this trickling down to other media companies from there.

The programmatic issue in all this

One of the largest offenders of carbon usage is programmatic advertising. Russell explained that when computers are trying to outbid each other, they use a lot of electricity to solve calculations. If companies simplify the supply chain, this will reduce emissions.

“Not all those bids are going to win so a lot of them are effectively wasted. And the energy processing them is consumed, but there’s no end product for the sake of it.” He made the point that with programmatic, there might be, say, 50 creatives to and fro-ing across the Internet at anyone one time for a single bid process. That’s a lot of wasted effort and emission.

Russell asks media companies to ask themselves, “Can you reduce working with individual partners to simplify the supply chain?”

Start now?

If you decide to start, start now, he said. It may seem overwhelming, but companies need to start focusing on truly reducing carbon use and not just on offsetting it.

“We’re not going to get this right the first time around as an industry,” Russel said, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't try.”

One can only applaud what The Guardian are doing here. And one feels that this could well be a vision of what the future of advertising is all about.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to INMA’s Brie Logsdon and her editorial team for their excellent reporting on the advertising sales  master class, part of which has been the referred to in this newsletter. 

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About Mark Challinor

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