Digitalisation and sustainability: A love-hate affair – by Keel Comms’ Baha Hamadi

By Baha Hamadi, founder and managing director at Keel Comms.

Businesses today are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of ESG practices. As a result, sustainable marketing strategies have been thrust into the spotlight. To stay ahead in today’s competitive business landscape, it is essential for companies, business leaders and marketers to develop an understanding as to why ESG considerations are now necessary and valuable for a firm’s future success.

Knowing the potential reasons behind incorporating sustainability initiatives into your digital presence can help you gain greater insight into how modern brands should embrace more eco-friendly operations.

Can digital marketing be a force for good?

Does digital marketing foster sustainable development without compromising its goal of achieving growth? Or does it have a hidden environmental cost? As we increasingly rely on technology to reach consumers, could our actions be taking an unexpected toll on the planet? Finding equilibrium between these two seemingly opposing forces—digitalisation and sustainability—is the path we need to set ourselves on to create harmony in our world.

Digital sustainability seems to be an oxymoron

Reflecting on our daily life habits is a great way to gain initial perspective and understand the issue of incoherence between digitalisation and sustainability. Many of us strive to make small lifestyle changes that are beneficial for our environment, such as reducing our use of disposable plastic shopping bags. But how often do you see people buying smartphones based on how likely a smartphone would make their lives more sustainable? We rarely tackle sustainability from a digitalisation perspective or vice versa. I believe it is time we embraced a mindset that brings these important areas together.

First school of thought: Digital marketing is a surprising drain on the environment

Digital tools and channels are nearly all based on cloud computing, which could be cheaper, faster, and more secure than using one’s own servers. However, the interconnectedness of the IT infrastructure—from devices, cellular base stations, data centres, and fiber optic cables that make up cloud computing—consumes massive amounts of energy.

Think of how hot your laptop gets sometimes. With billions of computers in the world today, we can all agree that these powerhouse machines generate a great deal of heat—and heat is energy. This energy is most likely coming from fossil fuels as opposed to clean sources.

Furthermore, keeping the cloud alive requires immense electricity and an enormous water footprint for cooling machines, plus piles of electronic waste. Data centres must remain on 24/7 to sustain a consistently connected world.

With advertising expenditure exceeding $500bn annually, no wonder that a staggering three-quarters of this figure is being funnelled into digital campaigns. But how does such heavy reliance on online presence affect our environment?

Research has revealed an alarming correlation between one million digital ad impressions, and carbon emissions equivalent to those generated by just one transatlantic flight from Boston to London for one person.

If the Internet was a nation, it would be one of the most energy consuming nations on Earth. With roughly 10 per cent of global electricity powering our interconnected devices and hardware, only China and the US outweigh the internet’s demand for power.

Keep in mind that most of that electricity is not coming from solar. Therefore, although digitalisation has many benefits, it is important to remember that much of the electricity used to power our digital world is still generated by fossil fuels—meaning the climate impact can be significant. In fact, around 4 per cent of global CO2 emissions stem from powering our connected lives—both in producing hardware and using the internet.

Digital is not quite virtual

We tend to perceive digitalisation as a virtual thing, but it often has a material base. With current disposal rates for devices not really reflecting much recycling activity, perhaps going fully digital isn’t the answer for marketers. Instead of a full digital conversion, we may find more feasible solutions by focusing only on necessary digitalisation to hit our targets.

Opposing school of thought: Digital marketing gives brands a sustainable edge

By its very nature, digital marketing is a more sustainable form of marketing compared to its traditional counterpart—abandoning paper-based methods such as billboards and print ads in favour of email campaigns, pay-per-click ads, APIs, social media, etc. A basic example is blogs—an efficient way to reach potential customers without having to rely on costly TV commercials.

Digitalisation offers an opportunity to help protect the environment by eliminating physical materials like books and newspapers. Replacing material-based marketing collateral with digital alternatives such as online news and platforms is indeed beneficial for the environment. This switch can drastically reduce our consumption of ink, as well as paper, which helps tackle deforestation.

Moreover, digitalisation facilitates access to more sustainable products, so living sustainably has never been more attainable. Digital marketing has a big role to play in enabling sustainable living. For example, brands can push sustainable products online, offering customers to buy an environmentally friendly pair of jeans for example next to its conventional counterpart online.

Digital marketing can help customers find sustainable alternatives, and still meet their needs. A great way to provide more sustainable alternatives is perhaps building a dedicated platform that enables online shoppers to find sustainable alternatives, not only eco-friendly products in terms of the material they’re made of, but also services. Take device repair and refurbishment for example, instead of throwing away your device and buying a new one, or maybe buying second hand items online.

In conclusion, we are left to wonder whether the future of our digital world will be powered by more AI and augmented reality. With a target date on the horizon for the Sustainable Development Goals, now is the time for us to take control and direct technology towards sustainability, including through digital marketing.

To realise this dream within less than a decade, digitalisation must evolve hand-in-hand with humanity.