Unilever Struggles to Quantify Carbon Footprint of Digital Advertising

CPG Giant Tries to 'Green' Its Marketing in Broader Sustainability Push

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Unilever is turning its attention to the media industry's carbon footprint, a move that comes on the heels of its Sustainable Living Plan, which for the first time tops the Climate Counts annual ranking of corporate efforts to combat climate change.

But as it tries to calculate how its media and marketing choices affect carbon emissions, the world's second-biggest advertising spender is finding that it's not easy seeing green, particularly with digital media.

Luis Di Como
Luis Di Como

Luis Di Como, Unilever's senior VP-global media, said the print industry and publishers have already documented their carbon footprints extensively. But he said the company is having a harder time getting data from and determining how to define the carbon impact of digital media. As a result, he said Unilever plans to work with the Association of National Advertisers to seek a way to fairly assess the carbon impacts across media.

Digital media often seems like a greener alternative than print, whose high cost in dollars and carbon alike includes felling trees, printing pages and shipping finished products to readers by air, land and sea. But print publishers have long contended they get a bad rap, pointing to the huge energy cost of vast server farms, consumers' computers and other digital devices.

Greenpeace projects data centers by 2020 will use more electricity than France, Brazil, Canada and Germany combined. In the U.S., about 57% of electricity is generated by coal, a major source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Up to now, there's been no independent arbiter of whether digital is really greener than print or other media, and it's far from easy to get an answer, as Mr. Di Como conceded.

One question: How much electricity used in digital-media either at the data center or a consumer's home should really be apportioned to advertising? While the impact of an additional ad page is relatively easy to quantify, how much more power does it take to add one more display or search ad to the digital mix?

Mr. Di Como also noted that some of Unilever's biggest marketing-related carbon impacts come in the advertising production process, particularly flying people to TV or video-production shoots.

The ANA has a sustainability task force in conjunction with the 4A's with which Unilever is very involved, said ANA President Bob Liodice. He's not sure where the task force stands in taking up the carbon footprint issue for media, but said, "The task force we've formed is looking broadly at the total scope and will decide very specifically what they could be working on."

Notes from a task-force meeting in May show Noreen Simmons, director of media strategy and operations at Unilever, brought up the issue of sustainable communications. According to the notes, discussion among participants focused on how "information about sustainable marketing is sparse and inconsistent across the advertising industry" and that "no common metrics on the environmental impacts of marketing communications currently exist."

Realistically, one reason Unilever is only now getting around to detailing the media toe in its carbon footprint is that it had bigger fish to fry (presumably with sustainably-sourced oil and renewable energy), according to Gavin Neath, senior VP-sustainability at Unilever.

The single biggest environmental impact in Unilever's "value chain," he said, comes not from manufacturing and certainly not marketing, but from consumer use. And the biggest single category-country contributor to energy and water use from Unilever products comes from U.S. personal care, he said -- specifically that 11 minutes a woman in the U.S. typically spends in the shower.

Like Mr. Di Como, Mr. Neath reports directly to Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed. Among the arguments for putting sustainability under the marketing area, he said, is that in "fast-moving consumer goods companies, if you're not on the brands' agenda, you're not really on the business agenda." Mr. Neath added that a big part of his job is "changing consumer behavior."

To that end, Unilever's Suave launched a promotion with Walmart Stores earlier this year aimed at encouraging people to find ways to shorten their showers. But, Mr. Neath said, large numbers of people will only realistically start taking shorter showers in response to higher water and energy costs.

After a decade of drought, some Australians already have timers on their showers, Mr. Neath pointed out. Drought-stricken portions of the U.S. Southwest could be headed in that direction, he said, noting that 100 million people in the U.S. now live in "water-stressed" areas. Part of the solution too, said Mr. Neath, could be product innovation -- such as dry shampoos and leave-in hair conditioners.

The efforts Unilever has made since launching its Sustainable Living Plan last year, with 50 numerical targets for reducing its environmental impacts, helped it edge Nike for the first time this year in the Climate Counts rankings. Climate Counts is a nonprofit organization launched with support from Stonyfield Fams, an organic dairy brand majority owned by Unilever competitor Groupe Danone.

"This kind of external recognition is an important validation of what we're seeking to do," said Mr. Neath. Unilever CEO Paul Polman has called sustainable sourcing and aggressive efforts to reduce environmental impact "a new business model and the only acceptable way of doing business," Mr. Neath said, particularly given that 53% of the company's sales come in developing markets, and most of its planned growth comes from increasing sales there.

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