Tom Jones-Barlow
Mar 11, 2024

How to investigate a vendor’s sustainability claims

With consumers and watchdogs increasingly scrutinising greenwashing among corporates, how can brands keep their own sustainability partners in check? SeenThis' Tom Jones-Barlow has a few suggestions.

Tom Jones-Barlow
Tom Jones-Barlow

With 2-4% of global greenhouse gas emissions created by the internet—more than aviation— scrutiny is growing on the contribution of digital advertising to this issue as it surges across all sectors of the economy. Sustainability in digital advertising is now firmly on the agenda globally, and although there may be uneven action across markets and brands, it’s here to stay and will continue to progress in the years to come.

Improving our sustainability and underlying efficiencies as an industry doesn’t just pose a challenge but an opportunity for brands, agencies and vendors who can demonstrate emission improvements while keeping bottom lines in check. This is a gigantic commercial opportunity for the years to come.

This opportunity goes hand-in-hand with a rush to meet demand, and it’s inevitable that some companies will make claims that may be inflated in order to maximise their own share.

The stakes are high with consumers' awareness on greenwashing. Meanwhile, real consequences exist such as international banks facing banned ads for this reason in the past few years. So how do you avoid the climate cowboys?

Sustainability in digital advertising is a new, developing and complicated subject which poses the question: how do we act quickly while providing due diligence to avoid reputational risk, or how do we avoid investing in solutions that do not deliver what they claim?

Keep in mind the added challenge in the Asia-Pacific region where the industry landscape is fragmented, each market has different macro factors in play, and agency teams may not have the engineering or technical resources at hand to interrogate the technology. Here are some starting questions to begin reviewing options.

Do they walk the walk, or just talk the talk?

This should be both quick to investigate and a good indicator as to whether a company sees sustainability as something genuinely important or views it with short-term commercial opportunism.

Has the company assessed their own emissions throughout their value chain? If so, do they produce emission reports and make these public, and do they have a plan to reduce their emissions? What are their targets? Are these targets validated by a respected third-party, such as the Science Based Targets initiative? And ultimately, does this company know that their own impact doesn’t cancel out any supposed sustainability improvements from using their product?

Are their claims specific?

Does this company just claim to be green? What does that mean, and why aren’t they more specific? If they claim to be 'carbon neutral', what’s their definition? Further digging may uncover the use of 'offsetting' or the purchasing of carbon credits. These have become increasingly controversial, with the EU banning “misleading” claims based on offsetting.

Do their claims rest on using 'fossil-free' energy, and if so, do they equate that energy to be zero CO2? For example, nuclear energy itself may not produce emissions, but the mining of uranium, as well as the building and maintenance of the plants certainly do.

Are their claims local?

Powering your campaign entirely by renewables sounds great (and it is) but how is that being achieved in your market? Where are their servers based, and if it’s locally are they still renewably powered? And if they’re not local, how quickly do their ads load?

How is their product’s impact measured?

Technically speaking, what is being measured in terms of reductions or improvements, what is it being compared to and how is it done? What numbers are reported, and are they accurate? Which third parties have verified these numbers, or are there any third parties providing the measurement itself? If some scenarios and variables are assumed, what are these and are they clearly communicated?

None of this is to suggest that partners need to be perfect; it is a complicated issue with no perfect solutions available today. But all available transparency and trust is important to protect agencies' and brands' own reputations when repeating claims and ultimately this means thoroughly vetting these claims as independently as possible. Ultimately, greater scrutiny can only help the industry as a whole in the long run, especially as this is one of many industries on the path to decarbonisation.

Tom Jones-Barlow is the general manager for Asia at SeenThis.


Campaign Asia

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