Interview: Digital Footprints of Modern Advertising and Media

Who among us has not computerized our bills, thinking that reducing paper consumption was more Earth-friendly? Or increased accomplishing anything and everything by email that used to be done by snail mail? On a larger scale, media and advertising (and to some degree entertainment) has had the same idea, moving away from traditional print to digital delivery models. At the Sustainable Media Climate Symposium in Manhattan last December, Don Carli spoke about the new and somewhat controversial concept of ‘Tree Washing’ within the advertising and media industries, specifically the notion that modern technology use and methodologies leave a larger carbon footprint than the traditional paper industry:

The video, and idea, caught’s attention in a big way. Mr. Carli, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Communications, has hypothesized extensively about whether digital media is worse for the environment, including a recent white paper about the guilt that this new dilemma has incurred in consumers. Eager to learn more, sat down with Mr. Carli to discuss the technology and environmental challenges presented by modern media and advertising conduits, how technologists and creatives can work in concert with environmental and watchdog organizations to mitigate these challenges as technology continues to evolve in our lives, and why it’s in businesses’ and brands’ best interests to compact carbon footprints. For our complete interview, please click “continue reading.” We have talked before about your unusual background, which started off quite in the traditional artistic realm, before pursuing the more technical aspects of advertising and media deconstruction. Can you talk about that and how important it was to fuel your later passion?

Don Carli: I suppose you can say one thing leads to another, but it really has been a journey that began with an undergraduate degree as a liberal arts major. You learn to learn, you don’t learn anything in particular. As a liberal arts major at St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York, we were encouraged to study broadly and to double-major if we sought. So I started out as a biochemistry major, but found I enjoyed literature more than titrations, so I changed my major to English Literature, and at the time my roommate was (and still

is to this day) a sculptor, there undertaking a career in the fine arts. He’s a very successful man by the name of John Van Alstine. I was kind of interested in what he was doing, so I decided to double major, but I didn’t leave the chemistry behind. I’ve always been interested in, first of all, how we communicate as a species, and literature is one side of the brain and visual arts are the other side of the brain. Underlying it all, I was always interested in the science and the chemistry that makes it all possible. As an example, when I was studying art in printmaking, I wanted to understand what the pigments are made of, and when I was studying ceramics, I wanted to know what makes the glazes the colors that they are. I was the kind of art student that would walk over to the geology department and then do forensic analysis of the dyes and glazes and pigments. So I was always a left-brain/right-brain, quantitative/qualitative student of learning. In my studies, it was clear to me that the challenge that I’d face (and that we continue to face as a society) is reconciling these very different two cultures of the sciences and the arts. So a good deal of my career has been trying to resolve that conflict, trying to fuse those irreconcilable opposites into some synthesis that identifies or unlocks value.

SPhD: Let’s talk about that a bit. Before we get into the heart of some of the things you do with the Institute for Sustainable Communication, we need to define some loosely thrown around terms for folks that may have kept hearing them, but aren’t exactly sure what they mean. The first is greenwashing. We hear this term a lot, but very few people take the time to expound on it in-depth. Can you help us define what it is and why is it such a threat to advertisers’ creative content and the consumer?

Products stamped with the Eco Logo are certified by TerraChoice for truthfulness in sustainability claims.

DC: It’s related to the term whitewash, where you try to cover something over. Greenwashing is basically the practice of making environmental claims, or claims of being “environmentally friendly,” that don’t necessarily reflect the underlying reality. In effect, it’s deceptive use of green claims. Perhaps the best guide or articulation of what are called the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” is a white paper that was developed by the environmental marketing agency TerraChoice. In Canada, TerraChoice also manages the Eco Logo program, the environmental labeling program that uses international standards for eco-labeling. In the “7 Sins of Greenwashing,” the sins are laid out—such as the sin of Hidden Tradeoff. That’s where you make some claim about a product without disclosing that there’s a hidden tradeoff, some dark side. Another [sin] is No Proof, where essentially you make a claim, but you don’t back it up. Or the sin of Vagueness, where the claim is so diffuse that you can’t really be held to any sort of criteria of judgement. And there are others that you could go on and on.

All of these things taken together undermine advertising and brands. At the end of the day, markets are dependent on trust by individuals of actors in the marketplace. So if Company A makes earnest efforts to quantify the environmental benefits delivered by its products or services, and to invest in the certification of those claims using sound scientific evidence, and then Company B simply makes a claim without substantiation, or a false or irrelevant claim, or tries to shift the burden from one area to another, that really diminishes the value of that other effort. So it’s very important that in markets, not only do we have rules, but that there’s enforcement of them so that we can trust that when something is said, it’s got meaning.

SPhD: That leads beautifully into my second point that I wanted to clarify with you, which is the notion of media supply chains. What are they?

DC: First of all, the Institute for Sustainable Communications is a non-profit that was founded a little over eight years ago. At the time, it was our realization that while there were many efforts being undertaken to use green marketing language and imagery, there was an almost wholesale avoidance or failure to recognize the environmental impacts of the media that were being used to carry out the messages. So, for us, a medium can be a magazine page, a newspaper, a billboard with LED lights, a web page, email and so on. Frankly, it could even be experiential media, like an event. But in every one of those cases, the medium involves flows of energy, flows of material, flows of waste, and patterns of human activity and information that have significant impacts. Unfortunately, most of those impacts are undocumented or unknown—they’re kind of the monolith hidden in plain sight. So the institute’s declared roles are to raise awareness of those media supply chains, and also to build capacity. They’re not just an environmental attack group. We work constructively with companies of all types, get them to understand that all of their communications media choices have environmental impacts, help them to quantify those, work with them, and help them to manage those impacts in a way that is good for business—not just less bad, but environmentally restorative.

SPhD: When you talk about media messages being “dissonant,” what do you mean by that?

DC: It kind of reminds me of even when you can’t sing, unless you’re totally tonedeaf, you generally can tell if someone is out of tune or off-key. And that grates us, it bothers us. From birth, we’re very conditioned to recognize dissonance between what people say and what they do. We have a highly evolved sensibility to identify politicians who say one thing and do another, parents who say one thing and do another, and yet, here comes the marketing industry that increasingly is using green messages. In many cases, they’re using genuine efforts to improve the formation of their products, the chemistry that they’re made of is greener, and to improve the environmental profile or sustainability of their packaging. To use less material, to use renewable and compostable material… and yet, characteristically, they tend to ignore the sustainability aspects of their advertising, their marketing/communications and their promotion activities. So consumers really aren’t stupid, and they can see, once they’re made aware of what the flows are, that there’s a disconnect. I think there’s an opportunity for brands to walk the talk, to demonstrate their commitments or their beliefs and values, not only in their products and packaging, but in their advertising and promotion, the way they employ people, energy, materials, and the way they manage waste.

SPhD: Technology and media aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they’re proliferating, especially now with the iPad’s successful launch. Social media is stronger than ever. You’ve talked a lot about the idea that just because something is digital or electronic, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more green or tree-friendly. So, how do we piece together our growing need for consumption of e-media and the fact that it’s potentially devastating to the environment?

DC: You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and you can’t measure what you don’t identify. So you have to start by identifying where is the energy and material that makes it possible for me to advertise in any media coming from? The second question to ask is is that the most efficient use of energy or material—is it even necessary? Could I use less of it? And if I have to use it, is the energy renewable? If the answer to that is no, then we have to ponder whether there is a way to change the supply chain, the sequence of business activities that make it possible for me to do that, and still achieve my business objective. So we need to develop standards for product categories in advertising. We don’t have those today. We have standard units that are employed in banner advertising, but if you wanted to compare the carbon footprint of a banner ad to the carbon footprint of a magazine ad, the product descriptions don’t support those comparisons.

An example would be snail mail and email. We are extremely conditioned to believe that traditional mail is an annoyance, is bad, is environmentally impactful, and that email is better, or that digital communication is environmentally preferable. If you wanted to compare one dimension of physical mail and email, let’s say its carbon footprint, you have to have a unit of comparison. Today, the mailing industry describes a unit of mail as one gram of mail. How do you compare one gram of physical mail with its counterpart in email? There’s no weight. So as industries, first we need to develop product definitions or category definitions that allow us to make objective comparisons among and between different categories of communication. So a marketer, for example, can now create a media plan that uses 5 or 10 or 15 different media types to touch prospective and current customers with a message. And for each of those, to know how effective it was, what its economic costs were, as well as what its environmental and ancillary social impacts were. It’s not rocket science, it’s just accounting! But it’s accounting that we’re not doing today because, frankly, no one asked us to.

SPhD: What has been the response from the advertising and media industries to a lot of your efforts?

DC: We’ve been at it for about ten years. I’d say initially, I felt somewhat like a dog howling at the moon. Now it’s a little bit more like the dog that caught the car. There are advertisers and advertising associations that are listening and working with us now. Their change of heart and mind has really evolved as the recognition of sustainability performance or economic/social triple-bottom line performance has become more of a concern for regulators, with the SEC, particularly institutional investors, large retail chains like Wal-Mart, and to a lesser degree, to consumers. As those other interest groups have said that this idea of measuring the economic and environmental and social impacts of the business corellated with success and risk, we think it’s important to pay attention to it. An example of that from the last few weeks: Intel’s board acknowledged that sustainability performance reporting is a fiduciary responsibility. That’s a big deal. So once the reporting and identification/quantification is seen as a fiduciary responsibility, it changes the whole dynamic.

SPhD: As a consumer, what do we do?

DC: Well, the consumer ultimately holds the brand accountable. And we’ve seen study after study say that while consumers won’t pay more for a green brand, they will punish brands that they see to be irresponsible by not buying it. Even worse for the brand is that while a loyal consumer may tell one friend, a disaffected consumer will tell ten. So in this fishbowl world we live in, Facebook-Twitter-YouTube exposure, it’s kind of a synopticon. A brand can’t hide any longer—the activities of its supply chain, where its energy comes from, where its materials or labor come from. Sooner or later, someone with a cell phone camera will send an SMS and it’ll wind up on Twitter, and the next thing you know, it’s in the mainstream media news cycle within a day. And overnight, bilions of dollars in brand value can be destroyed.

When it comes to the media supply chain, it’s not that they have such egregious wrongs in them. It’s just that in aggregate, advertising and media supply chains represent about 10% of our gross domestic product. Advertisers in the United States spend on the order of $150 billion per year on paid media. That $150 billion is just to buy the space. That unleashes a whole cascade of business activities that involve mining, agriculture, forestry and transportation, retail, distribution that collectively represent about a trillion dollars or more of our GDP. So, there is no one company or brand that buys enough advertising to have concentration of influence. Even the biggest advertiser in the world spends on the order of $10 billion dollars out of $150 billion or more, so even if they were to lay down the law, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. There’s no functional equivalent to Wal-Mart in the world of advertising. If there was a concentration of 30-40% of ad buys in the hands of one company, there are so many different types of media and media supply chains, that there isn’t sufficient leverage in terms of impacting those different choices. So it is a challenge, but it’s not completely intractable. It begins by a recognition of a group of the largest brands that they need to quantify where the flows of energy and materials are, and to what degree they are at risk of changing that might hurt their business, the environment or society. Once they’ve gotten that picture, then it’s possible to change things.

Don Carli is a Senior Research Fellow with the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Communication, where he is director of The Sustainable Advertising Partnership and oversees programs addressing advertising, marketing, corporate responsibility, sustainability, and enterprise communication. He is also a member of the board of advisors of the AIGA Center for Sustainable Design. If you have ideas for Don about what he discussed above, or want to learn more, follow him on Twitter @dcarli.

***************** covers science and technology in entertainment, media and advertising. Hire our consulting company for creative content development.

Follow us on Twitter and our Facebook fan page. Subscribe to free email notifications of new posts on our home page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *