A design for life: How to make digital marketing sustainable
Marketers have a responsibility to integrate sustainable thinking across their whole discipline, acknowledging and reducing the carbon footprint of digital activity
What is your definition of wasteful? Sending back a half-eaten plate of food? Leaving the lights on as you leave the room? Perhaps a clothing mountain, nearly 60,000 tonnes of it, mouldering in the Atacama desert. Many still with the labels on.
These were just some of the examples of how the dark side of marketing has become a key contributor to the issues that compromise the health of the planet, as cited by Esther Duran, chief design and product officer for Zone, at the Festival of Marketing. Marketing’s success in encouraging consumption has been at least partially responsible for humans producing and consuming (or, in some cases, sending straight to landfill) more than we could ever need or want.
That is the obvious face of anti-sustainable behaviour and it’s one that, naturally, switched-on marketers are working hard to combat. Circularity, the use of recycled materials, and a drive to longer-lasting, smaller-batch products are certainly steps in the right direction. But we’re only scratching the surface.
There is so much more marketing activity that contributes to the overall carbon footprint of a business, and it is something marketers must prioritise if their claims of becoming sustainable are to hold water. One of these is unnecessary digital activity, where marketers and the business world would appear to have a blind spot.
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Zone's Esther Duran on digital marketing's carbon footprint
“Human beings are really bad with abstract concepts, and one of those is digital,” said Duran. But it’s possible to make the abstract feel tangible when you understand how it relates to ‘real-world’ concepts.
She explained: “The internet generates 3.7% of global emissions, the equivalent of all the air traffic in the world. That’s going to double by 2025. If the internet were a country, it would be the third largest consumer of energy in the world after China and the USA.”
One might argue the internet plays a vital role in the functioning of global economies and that its growing consumption of resources is inevitable, but Duran argued this is not necessarily the case. “There are 7.1 billion unwanted emails sent every day, globally. We don’t even look at them. But 7.1 billion emails are emitting 28,000 tonnes of CO2 every day. That’s the equivalent of producing almost three billion plastic bags, or one million people flying by plane from London to Paris – daily. Digital pollution is really real.”
By starting with the design process, marketers can begin to reverse this trend and make a positive contribution to the planet’s health. “It’s not just about recycling plastic or clothes anymore. It’s about digital sustainability. Sixty per cent of the solutions happen in the design process. As we’re applying [sustainable] design techniques in fashion or packaging, we need to do the same with digital,” Duran suggests.
This increased mindfulness means that the industry has had to shift the lens when it comes to human-centric design and ‘customer-centricity’ because, when what is best for the customer and best for society at large don’t align, inclusive design principals need to come to the fore. Duran suggested we need to go beyond the typical customer-centric approach and take a more holistic view. Her team is creating personas to understand the people for whom they need to be designing products, services or even advertising campaigns.
They have stopped thinking about personas such as ‘John, 35- to 45-year-old homeowner’, and are now thinking about John in the context of his community or his place as a stakeholder in the planet. “People, planet, profits – that’s the triangle,” Duran said.
Beyond the wider view of the customer, marketing sustainability is about building multidisciplinary teams that represent the varying stakeholder interests in some way. “You need to mix capabilities so you have a holistic solution to any problem. Think about engineers, designers, SEO specialists – inclusion and diversity are also really important. How can you design something that is inclusive and also accessible?”
“If the internet were a country, it would be the third largest consumer of energy in the world after China and the USA.”
— Esther Duran, Zone
Recycling digital products
Putting sustainability at the heart of the design process – taking into account the totality of the customer’s environment and experience – means there will be no unintended consequences at the end of campaigns, like the 7.1 billion unread emails. Thinking in this way also answers other brand purpose-related questions, such as how to be authentic, transparent and ethical. Duran acknowledged that it can be tricky to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ when it comes to digital assets in some industries. To help with this, her team is currently developing workshops to define frameworks for recycling digital assets.
Duran concluded that, without proper stewardship, digital will become a sustainability bête noire, like plastic. But this shouldn’t drive brands to take superficial, greenwashing actions.
“You do it because it’s the purpose of the brand. Everyone – programmers, engineers, front- and back-end UX designers are all starting to think at the design stage how we can make our products or services more sustainable.”
Even then, it’s not the end. Once the product is in the client’s hands, they too have to be brought up to speed on what it will mean to be sustainable going forwards. Education and awareness of digital sustainability are where all businesses should start – not just educating their customers on its importance, but themselves too. It’s a challenge brands are willing to meet, Duran promised. “A lot of them love it. Sustainability has to be on everyone’s agenda.”◆
How to reduce your
Neil Clark, co-chair of the sustainability council at digital trade body at BIMA, joined the Festival of Marketing session for a Q&A, giving the following advice for minimising the environmental footprint of a brand’s website and digital experiences.
Reduce data loads by using less imagery - less stock imagery particularly - and not auto-playing videos.
Avoid confusing user experiences so people don’t have to keep navigating around your site, minimising unnecessary data traffic.
Ensure you have good SEO, which means the right people find your website at the right time, and the wrong people don’t visit it and create emissions through wasted data transfer.
Move away from KPIs focused on increasing the amount of pages people look at – let them visit your site, achieve their objectives in the fewest clicks possible, then leave.
Use a data centre provider that is powered by renewable energy.
Prevent bots interacting with your site – roughly 25% of internet traffic consists of ‘bad bots’, visiting websites with malign intentions such as slowing performance, hacking, stealing data and committing ad fraud.
Make the planet a stakeholder in your strategic decisions.