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What the Tech is green media?

What the Tech is green media?

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Getty / The Current

Every industry in the global economy is thinking about how to help in the fight against climate change, and the advertising industry is no exception.

While relative to other industries, advertising doesn’t seem like it would contribute much climate-warming greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, many ad agencies, marketers, publishers and ad tech firms are nonetheless implementing changes to decarbonize their operations and make their companies more sustainable.

The catchall term for these efforts is “green media.” (It’s unclear how many ad copywriters and billable hours it took to come up with such a catchy name.) To explain how advertising is going green, we’ve assembled this handy FAQ about how green media works.

What is green media?

Green media is all about delivering advertising more efficiently.

In its current state, the ad-delivery process can be a Byzantine one, with a single ad having to go through numerous steps on the ad tech supply chain before it’s finally served to the appropriate consumer. Serving a single ad can involve using a supply-side platform (SSP), a demand-side platform (DSP), a data management platform (DMP), an ad exchange, a private marketplace or some combination therein, before reaching a publisher’s website. (If you’d like a breakdown of this alphabet soup of ad tech terms, we’ve got you.)

Because of this complex structure, there is a seemingly infinite number of paths an ad can take from advertiser to publisher. All of this movement can be inefficient and largely unnecessary, resulting in wasted computing power — and thus, unnecessary carbon emissions. (One of the biggest knocks against the crypto industry, for example, is the incredible amount of computer power needed to run the servers that mine and track cryptocurrencies.)

Programmatic advertising in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany and France generates a combined 215,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per month, according to a 2023 report from Scope3, a software company that specializes in measuring the environmental impact of the media industry. And that’s just five countries.

If the ad-delivery process were more efficient, however, it would recruit less computing power and limit carbon emissions.

How does green media work?

Finding the most efficient route for an ad is a process known as supply path optimization (SPO).

Typically, when an ad is served, it goes through the complicated process outlined above (from brand to agency to DSP to exchange to SSP to ad server) before it appears in front of a consumer. This process is so complex that brands often don’t even know where their ads end up, or how much of their advertising budgets went toward paying the fees they racked up using these myriad services. Brands can end up paying an exorbitant price for an ad that appears on a sketchy website.

Instead of sending an ad back and forth between myriad buying and selling platforms, accumulating unnecessary fees and greenhouse gas emissions along the way, SPO finds a clear, more direct route between advertiser and publisher. SPO not only helps cut down on wasted ad spend and ensures the ad is served with a trusted publisher for the advertiser, but it can also decrease the computing power used, making the process more green.

Some ad tech vendors have also implemented incentives, such as fees and credits, to induce buyers and sellers to engage in more efficient transactions.

How is green media measured?

A green media campaign is measured by the number of carbon emissions it creates — or rather, the number of CO₂ emissions it doesn’t create.

Ad tech firm Scope3, which specializes in making the media industry greener, has even created a new metric for this express purpose: grams of carbon emissions per 1,000 impressions (gCO₂PM). The metric takes the classic advertising metric of CPM — short for cost per mille, meaning the cost per 1,000 impressions — and applies it to a campaign’s carbon footprint instead of price. The higher the gCO₂PM, the more emissions a campaign creates.

Meanwhile, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM), an initiative launched by the trade group World Federation of Advertisers to address the media’s role in fighting global warming, is actively working on sustainability standards for the industry to follow. GARM expects to release its standards in 2024.

What’s an example of green media at work?

A number of buying platforms — such as PubMatic, Magnite and Yahoo — offer SPO-style products that aim to eliminate bad inventory and ensure an efficient, reliable ad transaction process. One example is The Trade Desk’s OpenPath product, which enables publishers — including Reuters, The Washington Post, USA Today, Condé Nast, McClatchy and Hearst, to name just a few — to directly plug in to The Trade Desk’s buying platform. OpenPath brings buyers and sellers closer together, making the process simpler and more efficient — and therefore more environmentally friendly.

Scope3 also provides brands with a tool to track the gCO₂PM level of their campaigns and adjust their spending accordingly. SPO and gCO₂PM are inversely related — the more efficient campaign delivery is, the lower the gCO₂PM is (and vice versa).

Using these tools can help brands avoid so-called made-for-advertising websites — scammy publishers that create websites overloaded with autoplay video and display ads. These ads aren’t designed to create an enjoyable experience for consumers or good advertising opportunities for brands. They exist solely to make as much money as possible, and they are both spammy and, given their gCO₂PM scores, bad for the environment.

The ad industry is also trying to crack down on continuous-play ads, which is when a connected TV plays even when a television set is turned off, another form of ad waste for brands.

In all these cases, the interests of buyers and environmentalists are aligned. The fight against global warming is often viewed as one between corporate interests and environmental concerns. But with green media, there’s a basis for an alliance that could be a win-win for everyone.

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk Inc.