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The Drum | 4 Steps To Digital Sustainability: Don’t Let Perfection Be The Enemy Of Progress

Geoff Griffiths of digital agency Builtvisible takes a practical look at how agencies like his can reduce their carbon emissions by going back to basics: reduce, reuse, recycle and offset the rest.

Sustainability and environmental impact have rightly become important topics in recent years, as marketing leaders try to keep pace and understand issues that are often side-effects of their core focus.

Just this month, IAB Europe released its ‘State of Readiness: Sustainability in Digital Advertising’ report. It showed that marketers and advertisers (perhaps unsurprisingly) agree that measuring and reducing digital’s carbon footprint are good things to do, but that they’re decidedly lagging on action.

But why?

I really like Good-Loop’s Amy Williams’ trifecta of reasons as a starting point: standardization, regulation and education. These are the end game for getting a proper grip and making meaningful change.

But what about right now? There are so many routes, options and opinions that it can be difficult to know where to start. Builtvisible is going through B Corp certification right now, for example; while it is an amazing framework for having a positive impact, it would be easy to end up spending a lot of time writing policies instead of taking action.

Momentum is a very powerful thing, and immediate steps in the right direction are key to ‘getting it’ and building on progress. We rolled out a very simple framework to structure our thinking, get going and make it incredibly simple for the wider business to buy in. Reduce, reuse, recycle, and offset everything else.

1. Reduce

First, what can you reduce?

From the clear and obvious like business travel to the more complex, like sourcing supplies from local providers, the question of “what can I reduce?” is a powerful one.

One opportunity for digital agencies is making sure our computing specs are optimized for a balance of performance and power consumption. For example, a digital PR consultant may only need a 16GB-ram computer, whereas a technical SEO tends to need far more computing power.

The easy route would be to order standard specs, typically at the high end for ease, but a bit of extra thought makes this an easy win for cross-functional teams. Small efforts at scale will add up to a bigger impact.

2. Re-use

Sticking with IT, one statistic stopped me in my tracks last year: of the carbon emissions generated by desktop and laptop computers, a shocking 85% result from manufacture and shipping, with only 15% coming from electricity consumption while in use.

On this basis, the idea of ‘re-use’ is a no-brainer – from having your IT provider prioritize repairs over replacements, to wiping and redistributing current machines and procuring refurbished models instead of new machines. There are huge opportunities for being better just by having this concept front of mind.

3. Recycle

Office suppliers have a huge role to play.

Questioning your office suppliers’ credentials and policies is always a good idea, but there is so much more that can be done beyond popping things in the green recycling bin.

I really like WeWork’s partnership with BioBean, for example. Known for the barista coffee on-demand, WeWork recycles its ground coffee grinds into burnable logs in the UK; in California, it has partnered with local farms to donate coffee grounds for use as compost.

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4. Offset the rest

In reality, it’s virtually impossible to fully neutralize emissions as a digital agency. That’s why offsetting is needed: to take care of what you can’t actively tackle.

Offsetting itself, rightly, has a bit of a sticky reputation. Putting the time into researching, qualifying and filtering out the wheat from the chaff is a must. We decided to partner with Ecologi because of the variety and validity of the projects they fund, alongside the tree planting that admittedly takes time to have an impact.

The nature of the scheme (and Ecologi’s API) makes it incredibly easy to automate carbon offsetting – for example, firing off an API call to plant trees every time a customer signs a contract or a new member of staff is onboarded.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. These four Rs, I hope, provide a simple, sequential framework for digital agency leaders to get moving on environmental impact today, rather than waiting to get everything perfect tomorrow.

When the industry catches up on standardization, regulation and education, we’ll all be further ahead as a result.

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