What is digital sustainability, and why should you care?

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It's easy to conceive sustainability in its most tangible form – innovative packaging solutions, plastic waste, plant-based products and so on. But what about that email you just sent? What kind of impact does our digital footprint leave on the environment?

Digital sustainability is often overlooked, but every single action we do online, every single choice we make, is going to leave a mark sooner or later. What is digital sustainability then, and why should the industry care?

We reached out to David Tuck, CEO at Kin + Carta Europe, to discuss the topic in more depth below.


Digital sustainability: the electronic elephant in the room

Sustainability is becoming a catch-all in the creative world - a tickbox you’ll usually find alongside ‘innovation’ and synergy’, used to score a nod of approval from clients and prospects. More often than not, these buzzwords are all talk and no action. 

The issue with sustainability though, is that you can’t ignore it; the consequences of letting it become part of the background noise are too grave. As Creativepool’s Purpose Month kicks in, and at a time when digital transformation is front, centre and backstage for the creative and marketing worlds, it’s worth pointing out that the carbon footprint of our digital estates are a crucial part of the story.

Our digital carbon footprints are currently overlooked because by and large, sustainability is perceived mainly in its most tangible sense – recycling, reducing waste, cutting out palm oil. We’re living in an age of activist generations though, and there’s no question that the energy used by our digital estates will be added to that list sooner rather than later.

What is digital sustainability, and why should you care?

According to Kin + Carta’s 2021 Change Report, 81% of us believe that businesses have a responsibility to invest in becoming more environmentally friendly, with sustainability as a main consideration.

Clearly, sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have, but a moral obligation: something businesses large and small should look to embed in their everyday, in order for us to see positive, long-lasting change.

As we’ve covered, for most people right now, the idea of sustainability is something tangible. They need to see the reduction of waste or the recycling of materials to acknowledge the change. It’s why brands like Oatly communicate messages so effectively (and also rile people up): it tells you what you’re doing ‘wrong’, then offers you an alternative that you can pick up in the shops today, right now, to fix it. 

Digitally, it’s a harder message to get across, but no less crucial. For example, if we all sent one less ‘unnecessary’ email per day, we’d end up saving the UK 16,000 tonnes of carbon on an annual basis. That’s stark, and it's part of the reason we’ve built environmental responsibility into our agency’s parameters for client success - to put it on a level pegging with more immediate sustainability factors.

What proactive steps can you take to make a positive impact?

Brands and their agency partners are producing content at an alarming rate, and the idea of ‘content for content’s sake’ has muddied the waters separating quality from quantity. As sustainability rises up the consumer agenda, it makes sense for brands and agencies to focus on quality of communications over quantity, before it comes back to bite them. So there’s merit in taking your time and really meaning what you say and do.


A BIMA roundtable on the topic last year suggested we deliver experiences that temper content consumption, and I couldn’t agree more. That’s not to say you should just do the bare minimum and leave it at that, but this ethos requires you to scrutinise everything you do. Ask yourself: ‘Do we really need twelve microsites for this two-week digital campaign?’. If the real answer is probably no, action it and downsize - immediately, you’re saving your team time, money and energy consumption. 

You’re making the world work better by just stepping back and asking simple questions. 

If you’ve never considered whether those digital billboards you hired are using renewable energy, or if the magazines you’ve bought ad space in do anything to offset their carbon emissions, now’s the time to ask.

The same thinking applies to the ways in which we work. Understanding that teams working in a silo are much less likely to deliver at the same pace, or to the same quality as those working together, ensures that infrastructures are more efficient and connected. Acting on this means our teams are using the same (or compatible) software, ticking tasks off using the same project management tool, and elongating the life-cycle of certain assets and projects by clearly communicating with one another to see what can be reskinned, reused or reimagined. 

The end-of-life date for projects and assets is something that’s seldom discussed in client briefs and meetings, and if we normalise the idea of recycling these things (just as we do with physical products), then it starts becoming a natural part of doing business. 

These aren’t revolutionary measures. They’re admittedly small, but significant steps towards a more responsible digital carbon footprint. By doing this, we’re looking to reset what’s deemed as important in the normal course of business, and embedding that behaviour into every facet of our businesses and those we work with.

What should you be asking your marketing partners in order to decarbonise your digital estate?

It’s a vast issue, no question. We all play a role in decarbonising our digital estates.

At Kin + Carta, our response is to include environmental responsibility as a key parameter for client success. To underline how serious we are about this, we’re now on track to become the first major European business to become B Corp-accredited.

The latter might not be for everyone here and now, but digital should absolutely be accounted for in an agency’s sustainability development goals. Just as customers have started moving away from single-use plastic or unsustainable palm oil, this too can be a turning point for how they consume the content we put out - and how we help to change their behaviour.

That means pushing for new regulations and standards for digital sustainability. Initiatives like Terra Carta, which launched earlier this year with Prince Charles at the helm, called upon businesses to commit to nearly 100 sustainability pledges. Its third article committed signatories to communicate better with consumers about the sustainability of their purchases. Signing up to this is a great first step, but there’s a real opportunity for us to lead change here by pushing beyond this, and making marketing a carbon-neutral industry. And with sustainability, digital or otherwise, there’s no time like the present.

David Tuck is the CEO of Kin + Carta Europe


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