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How Harmful Is Online Advertising (Really)

We encounter advertising every day – on the street, in the subway or on our own smartphones. More and more corporations are using advertising to present their green image. But what about the carbon footprint of advertising itself?

Green is the dominant color in advertising. This impression could quickly arise if you take a closer look at the development or the optics in marketing. Almost every product has at least one green logo that stands for sustainability, biodiversity or healthy attitudes.

And the packaging is also becoming greener and greener. A tree here, a sprouting plant there: an ecologically oriented and sustainable attitude meets the zeitgeist. It is precisely for this reason that more and more companies are jumping on the proverbial bandwagon.

Greenwashing works (at least subconsciously)

It is also clear that a part of this is greenwashing that should not be ignored. Whether it’s a paper bottle that Coca-Cola is testing or the green electricity that Amazon or Deutsche Bahn use to offer some of their services makes little difference.

Despite all the obvious doubts about some sustainability initiatives, consumers subliminally have a better picture in their heads. Once that happens, advertising has achieved everything it set out to do.

Carbon footprint: how harmful is online advertising itself?

What often fades into the background in all discussions about sustainability is the question of advertising itself. Or, more specifically: How large is the CO2 footprint caused by digital advertising?

The employees of the marketing cloud Cavai have dealt with exactly this question study occupied. The result: Online advertising alone consumes between 20 and 282 terawatt hours of electricity in one year.

According to the results of the study, the power consumption of the technical infrastructure required to run the advertising even amounts to 791 to 1,334 terawatt hours. These arise, for example, from the data centers, the servers, the desktop screens or the apps on your smartphone.

Incidentally, the large areas of fluctuation arise from the fact that the specific consumption figures are different in the individual countries. This results in mean values.

CO2 footprint: online advertising vs. China, USA, Germany and Co.

As always, it’s helpful to put the numbers in perspective. Had the largest electricity consumption in the world according to stats in 2021 China with 7,806 terawatt hours. The USA and India follow in second and third place with 3,979 and 1,443 terawatt hours respectively.

With just over 500 terawatt hours, Germany is below the minimum consumption of the technical infrastructure. With its 234 terawatt hours, Spain roughly corresponds to the carbon footprint of pure online advertising.

This is the carbon footprint of a single digital display

Of course, the researchers have also broken down the numbers to the smallest unit: According to this, a played digital advertisement produces between 0.08 and 1.09 grams of CO2.

For comparison: This corresponds to an electric car that drives between 0.4 and 9.65 meters or the consumption of an LED light bulb that shines brightly for between 30 and 700 seconds.

According to an interview by Cavai CEO Steffen Svartberg, the online advertising is summed up with the drums responsible for around one percent of global CO2 emissions.

Accordingly, companies that really want to get involved in more sustainability should not post sustainable campaigns or run millions of online ads, but rather avoid large-scale advertising campaigns. That helps the environment more.

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