Link to home page
Link to home

News from the open internet


Sustainability could get a boost when universal standards come out at Cannes Lions

A group of people in business attire work on a garden as flowers and vines grow into a browser window.

Illustration by Dave Cole / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

Universal standards are coming soon to help digital advertisers measure their carbon emissions, a monumental move that could propel sustainability toward its next evolution. The Global Alliance of Responsible Media (GARM), along with Ad Net Zero, have developed a universal set of industry standards to be released this year at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

The new standards — known as the Global Media Sustainability Framework — aim to solve the digital ad industry’s longstanding problem when it comes to measuring sustainability: Everyone is using a different rulebook, according to experts who spoke with The Current. The new standards will provide benchmark metrics to unify every part of the industry, from agencies to brands, publishers to measurement partners and ad tech companies. These standards also have the potential to push forward future advertising investment, advocates for sustainability say.

“Today, if you're trying to baseline your carbon impacts from your media investment with a view to making reductions because you've set a corporate goal around scope 3 emissions decreasing, your baseline data is inevitably inaccurate. It's very difficult for you to then show progress against that baseline,” Hannah Mirza, CEO of the Responsible Marketing Agency, tells The Current.

Responsible Marketing Agency, an independent marketing environmental, social and governance consultancy, has been leading the working group for this effort. It’s been an immense project coordinating over 100 people and different parts of the ad ecosystem over an 18-month process.

Last year, GARM and Ad Net Zero released a 10-point action guide as the first step on the path to Cannes. The guide is being presented as an iterative work in progress, with more updates coming in the next year and as needed in the future.

There are hundreds of different companies doing carbon measurement in the digital advertising space, and over 35 reviewed by GARM that had different calculation methodologies, according to Mirza. Those varying methods were leading to wildly different outcomes. In some cases, the final accounting could be six to 10 times different based on which partner a company used for measurement.

Research from ExchangeWire found that only 44% of organizations surveyed are firmly confident they can accurately report scope 3 emissions in their supply chain. Moreover, 61% of those surveyed also feel that reporting appears to be a guesstimate rather than an actual factual measure.

This can lead to messy consequences that create a domino effect. Brands get different measurement numbers from agencies relying on disconnected data from measurement firms, meaning the lack of standards muddy the water when it comes to measuring carbon emission goals. With global brands like Microsoft, Apple, Google and more aiming to be carbon neutral or carbon negative by 2030, those goals are likely not attainable without first having a common set of laws.

“You need data, otherwise you have a blindfold on,” David Shaw, CEO of sustainability measurement firm Cedara, tells The Current.

Moving money in

This domino effect could have a big impact on sustainability budgets as well. Shaw and Mirza both believe there will be an increase in investment by the end of the year, with next year primed to be a potential breakthrough for the sustainability sector.

“The million-dollar question is, how fast is the acceleration?” Shaw says. “How effective was the rollout? It’s also about brand participation. Are brands now going to say ‘All right, now that GARM is released, how hard do we need to start pushing?’”

This is a key part of the story, as GARM’s measures are guidelines and not regulation. Parts of the industry can choose to abide by them or not, although Mirza believes there is wide excitement for the guidelines and given the large participation in their creation, many are already poised to advance with them.

Pooja Dindigal, chief impact officer of global agency Dept, is one of those people looking forward to the standards. She says Dept will now be able to move conversations with brands into a more actionable place because of the concrete baseline.

“With standards, like, they can be both carrot and stick in a lot of ways,” Dindigal tells The Current. “They take some time to really move into adoption.”

Pressuring the environment

So where will the pressure to adopt these standards come from? Shaw says brands have a lot of power because their money guides where the industry goes.

America’s influence in this conversation also cannot be understated either. While Europe and parts of Asia are leading the globe with sustainability regulation, some of the biggest advertisers in the world are headquartered in the U.S.

“If the U.S. were to adopt it in, the rest of the world would adopt it much faster for sure,” says Shaw, who moved to London for Cedara after spending two decades in the U.S. “It's such a massive market and runs so many media dollars.”

Back to the future

The best way to predict the future of sustainability could be looking back at the evolution of brand safety. Back in 2019, GARM started working on the first industry guidelines to unify brand safety. Some of the biggest companies in the world, from Unilever to Meta, worked towards adopting these frameworks.

As sustainability rises, agencies prioritizing it could be a differentiator for gaining new business. Mirza, Shaw and Dindigal all similarly see a near future where sustainability gains more importance in conversations, client pitches and the foundation of every campaign.

“I anticipate a future where, similar to brand safety I want all my inventory to be brand-safe and then I look at price and performance,” Mirza says. “I anticipate a future where I want all my inventory to be brand-safe and sustainably sourced, and then I look at price and performance within that.”

“We're probably 18 months to 2 years off [from] where it becomes a major deciding factor. In the meantime, we are getting to work helping brands and publishers ready for this near horizon,” she adds.