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Measuring the Environmental Impact of Marketing Communications

Discussions about environmental sustainability in business rarely mention the environmental footprint of marketing communications. Yet marketing successfully consumes too much energy and produces too much stuff to be ignored in considering -- and lowering -- your company's environmental impact. By Peter Korchnak


What is the environmental footprint of your company's marketing? How can you reduce it without negatively affecting your results?

Because you can't manage what you can't measure, the first step is to assess the situation and determine the environmental impact of your marketing communications. Two frameworks dominate the landscape of environmental impact assessment: Life Cycle Assessment and carbon footprint.

Life Cycle Assessment of marketing communications

Life Cycle Assessment (or Analysis) quantifies the total environmental impact of a product or service along its entire value chain, including "raw material acquisition, materials manufacture, production, use/reuse/maintenance, and waste management".

According to Stanford University's Jeremy Faludi, whose recent Sustainable Brands Boot Camp session covered the basics of LCAs, the purpose of life cycle analysis is five-fold:

  • Tell a product's back story
  • Identify the biggest impact along the value chain
  • Establish baselines for improvement
  • Guide product or process development
  • Support product certification

You can conduct an LCA either by calculating industry averages for particular impact points or calculating impact by product. LCA has been formalized in the ISO standard 14040-14049. Experts or certification bodies can conduct an LCA for you, using any of a number of available measurement methodologies.

Regardless of the desired level of detail, LCA is a comprehensive, time- and resource-intensive process that requires you to determine what to measure, gather product data, compute and compare product impacts, and interpret results. Follow up action to reduce impact and calculate the decrease further complicates things.

To conduct an LCA for your entire marketing program, you'd have to conduct a new and separate LCA for each and every product or service you're using. Because of this, I don't foresee its application in assessing the environmental impact of marketing any time soon, if at all.

If Life Cycle Assessment of marketing communications would be a mean feat, measuring carbon footprint, a subset of LCA, would considerably simplify the evaluation process, while still allowing for identifying greatest impacts and baselines for reduction.

Marcom's carbon footprint

FootprintCarbon footprint is "the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted over the full life cycle of a product or service or in a financial year for a business".

Because carbon dioxide is a major man-made greenhouse gas and because its measurement is more straightforward (and cheaper) than LCA, carbon footprint analysis has gained significant traction in the ecologically-minded business community.

According to Andrew Winston, competition in carbon footprinting software is "fierce". I have found these comprehensive tools on the market for measuring the total carbon footprint of your marcom activities:

Except for Etetra's, these tools reside behind tall pay walls, so it's hard to assess how they work, how accurate they are, what results they deliver, or what clients they serve.

Several free online calculators can help measure the carbon footprint of different parts of your marketing operations. Examples include

Even more so with these narrow calculators, accuracy and customization are an issue. But these tools will allow you to dip your toe in the complex waters of carbon footprint measurement and analysis.

Alternatively, as with LCAs, outsourcing the calculation of your marketing's environmental footprint to a specialized third-party would probably be more efficient. Plenty of carbon footprint consultants operate in the marketplace for any company to make an informed selection.

However, other than the Sustainable Advertising Partnership of the Institute of Sustainable Communication, it's unclear who, if anyone, specializes in the footprinting of marketing efforts. It seems carbon footprinting of marketing communications is a curve that's ahead of the next curve.

No demand, no supply?

The main reason for the scarcity of entities measuring the environmental footprint of marketing communications seems to be weak demand. Few companies seem to be interested in doing this, though as with many other environmental sustainability initiatives, lower environmental footprint can lead to significant financial savings.

For those enlightened corporations that want to reduce their marketing's environmental impact, scale becomes an issue: the carbon footprint of corporate marketing communications must be large enough for any measurement and reduction efforts to yield meaningful and cost-effective results.

Two other reasons may work to prevent companies from accounting for their marcom's eco footprint: the role of marketing and total carbon management. Rather than a strategic business function, marketing remains a utilitarian tool in many business people's minds. And, most companies focus on the footprint of either their entire operations or value chains of individual products.

What's your take? Is Life Cycle Assessment of marketing communications worth doing, and why? Does your company, or a company you know, measure or plan to measure your marcom's carbon footprint?

*** Image credits: bufivla and barockschloss

Peter Korchnak is a sustainable marketer, blogger, and speaker. As the principal of Semiosis Communications, he helps socially responsible businesses empower people, restore the planet, and achieve prosperity. On his Sustainable Marketing Blog and in his trainings and presentations he explores the intersection of marketing and sustainability. A Slovakia native and a Portland, Oregon resident, Peter enjoys guerrilla yardwork, ice hockey, trail running, and studying politics and culture.
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