How to Cut the Carbon Emissions of the Advertising Industry without Sacrificing Quality or Performance

By OpenX in Sustainability|November 9, 2022

“Sustainability has shifted from the margins, and niche projects, to a CEO and boardroom conversation about corporate purpose, growth and future strategy,” write Microsoft and dentsu in their groundbreaking report, “The Rise of Sustainable Media.”

We agree. OpenX didn’t set out to become a Net-Zero leader. Our goal back in 2018 was to drive efficiency in our operations by moving them to the cloud. Of course efficiency also means energy efficiency, and we lowered our carbon emissions dramatically — much more than we ever anticipated. When we realized that Net-Zero was well within our grasp, we set out to enlist climate leaders to help us verify our reductions, continue to reduce, and help us play a leadership role in the sector. Today, sustainability is one of the most important aspects of the OpenX brand.

One of the more gratifying aspects of our journey was realizing how many resources were readily available to us. As we benefited from the decades-long work of experts and other sectors, it became clear that the ad sector needs to collaborate to achieve the necessary reductions. It is hard work on a new topic, but here’s the thing: nothing motivates people more than taking meaningful action to leave the planet in a better place for future generations.

For this reason, we’re happy to share these strategies, gathered from numerous conversations with industry leaders, for greening up your campaigns.

Start with Leadership

The first step is to ensure your executive team is on board. Their commitment is vital, because sustainability demands we change the way the entire advertising ecosystem does business. We need to make the sort of changes that will have a meaningful impact that can scale.

Getting their commitment shouldn’t be too hard, mind you. To begin, a drive towards sustainability is a drive towards efficiency and cost reductions, as we’ll see below. Moreover, the investment community has made it clear that sustainable companies are the ones with a solid future, and are worth investing in. All of the metrics the board and C-suite care about are positively affected by sustainability.

Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

Next, you’ll need to calculate your carbon footprint. As Stephen Woodford, CEO of the UK Advertising Association, explains: “You can’t reduce your footprint or establish a pathway if you don’t know where you stand. You need to look at your own operations and where emissions are generated.”

If you’re new to sustainability, there are three “scopes,” or carbon emission categories, that come into play. The EPA defines these scopes as:

  • Scope 1: These are the “emissions that occur from sources that are controlled or owned by an organization (e.g., emissions associated with fuel combustion in boilers, furnaces, vehicles).”
  • Scope 2: These are the “emissions [that] are indirect GHG emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling.”
  • Scope 3: These are the emissions that are “the result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly impacts in its value chain.”

Fair enough, but how does one go about measuring these scopes? “Scope 1 and Scope 2 are easier to measure, and there are plenty of rules-of-thumb companies can rely on. For instance, pre-pandemic, an office-based business or a service-based business had a carbon footprint around about three, to three and a half tons of carbon a year per employee,” Stephen explained.

Meanwhile, the EPA provides a calculator to help you measure your Scope 2 emissions.

Calculating your Scope 3 emissions is a bit trickier, but luckily, we see some big players in our industry stepping up to the task. For instance, GroupM has announced a framework to calculate the admissions of campaigns, as did AdGreen, a carbon-reduction initiative of the UK Advertising Agency. Check them out! These calculators are open to anyone who wants to use them.

“We encourage people to sign up to externally validated targets or science-based targets that are in the public domain and to commit publicly to an end goal, with measurement and reporting along the way to that end goal,” said Stephen Woodford.

Reduce Carbon Emissions of Campaigns

In a previous blog post, we discussed the internet’s dirty secret: it’s a carbon hog, on par with the airline industry. But unlike the most carbon-hungry sectors, we have some low-hanging fruit that delivers big impacts.

First, switch to renewable energy, which is one of the easier ways to lower your Scope 2 emissions. Oftentimes the electric company from whom you purchase power offers renewable energy as an option, so lowering your emissions is as simple as making a phone call. In the unlikely event that they don’t, you can contract directly with a renewable energy provider. Companies can also limit travel, and choose to work with partners that have reduced their own carbon footprints. For example, some brands are shifting to work with virtual studios to reduce the carbon footprint of photo shoots.

“Production is a big part of our industry’s carbon footprint. Creating the actual advertising content generates an enormous amount of carbon, so it’s a rich area to look at when we want to lower emissions and work towards Net-Zero,” explains Stephen Woodward. If you must travel to a location, consider limiting the support staff you fly out, and hire local resources instead.

Reconsider some of the ad features, such as turning off auto-play and lessening the onsite data load for your campaign. These considerations, according to Stephen Woodward, can make a profound difference.

Finally, choose smarter delivery options for your campaigns. Work with ad-tech providers and websites that have made substantial gains in lowering their carbon emissions or even achieved CarbonNeutral status, as OpenX has done.

In addition to our overall sustainability, OpenX offers:

  • Green Media Deals: Purchase media that includes carbon offsets to deliver carbon-neutral advertising campaigns
  • Video by OpenX: Use streaming to create a more efficient campaign that uses less data than legacy ad serving — the added benefit is that streaming creates a better user experience.

“I think what OpenX has done over the last four years is incredibly impressive. It just shows that by putting sustainability front and center and letting it drive how you set up your business and provide services to your customers can make an enormous difference. OpenX has reduced its carbon footprint by more than 90%. This is a massive, massive savings,” said Stephen Woodford.

While OpenX has led with facts on the ground, we are also helping to raise awareness that there are many leaders reducing emissions in different ways. OpenX hosted two sustainability panels in Cannes and heard first-hand from advertisers who have committed to reducing carbon. These marketers told us that they still continue to optimize around all the campaign metrics we’re familiar with: audience, price and quality of exposure. Adding carbon to their lists of KPIs to optimize on had no negative impact on campaign performance.

“Once you start to factor carbon in and choose the most efficient and effective sites, you can have a six times better carbon footprint,” Stephen Woodward explained. Why six times? That’s the differential between campaigns that gobble up carbon and those that are sustainable. “You can do all this without any compromise on performance.”

Going Forward

Imagine a time when advertisers know the carbon impact of every site and ad unit before they make any production or media buying decisions. This insight will enable them to make carbon-smart decisions early on in the process, to the benefit of all humanity.

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