Uncovering the “black holes” within digital supply chains

“Visibility is key to business success.”

This phrase has been thrown around industries for some time now, but it still rings true. For years, experts have urged businesses to gain better visibility over their physical supply chains for many reasons, like sustainability, cost, efficiency, security, and a myriad of other business benefits.

But what about the digital counterpart?

The same urgency and attention is yet to be directed at digital supply chains. Given their complex nature, it’s unsurprising that some elements remain completely obscured to operation teams. But this has caused substantial damage over time, especially to the environment.

The Internet as a whole now produces more carbon emissions than the entire aviation industry.

Hidden carbon emissions are the by-product of the black holes within digital supply chains; the concealed elements using huge amounts of energy and data that each produce small amounts of carbon emissions every time. This quickly adds up.

Awareness of the digital carbon footprint is rising, but we need to ramp up the action at the same time. Knowing about it is one thing, doing something about it is another.

Complexity creates obscurity

The digital supply chain network is enormous, and so many elements are responsible for producing carbon emissions. For the moment, let’s focus on one major culprit: data.

Digital is run by data – huge quantities of information that inform, assess, and report on operations throughout the supply chain.

Businesses would be lost without it, but few recognise the damage it can do. For instance, a significant proportion of data generated by firms is single use. It’s processed, stored, then never used again.

This ‘dark data’, whilst not an immediately obvious cause of carbon emissions, has a huge real-world impact due to the energy used in its collation and storage. The emissions caused as a result of processing data are comparable to those of the sectors we scrutinise most.

A few years ago, IBM discovered that around 80% of all business data is dark. Therefore, the huge quantities of data that teams deal with on a day-to-day basis is but a mere fraction of that which lurks below the surface of their awareness.

This is just one example of how the digital realm is having a genuine, real-world impact.

Carbon measurement in digital advertising

One significant contributor to the digital carbon footprint is programmatic advertising, which has arguably become one of the most complex business ecosystems on the Internet. Environmental impact was not considered at the birth of the industry. But why would it be when everyone perceived digital to be ‘clean’?

Now, with the smoke screen lifted, we’re seeing a change. The truth is out, and discussions on how to clean up the industry are well underway. Often featured in these conversations is the move toward measurement and introduction of industry standards.

Carbon measurement in the digital advertising sector has only really existed in the form of an industry average. For example, reports often state ‘programmatic advertising generates ‘x’ amount of carbon emissions on average per year.’ This approach fails to recognise businesses for positive changes within their practice. It also doesn’t encourage change by helping to hide high polluters and those who choose to do nothing.

To incentivise a better way of working, the industry needs a granular way to measuring carbon emissions.

Shining a light on digital supply chains

As the old saying goes, adversity breeds opportunity. Digital advertising is now a $400bn industry, and there’s still miles of growth on offer. To become the first carbon neutral market would welcome countless opportunities and competitive advantages for associated businesses, not to mention the enormous benefit it would have on day-to-day operations.

But to achieve this, the industry needs greater visibility of its digital supply chains and where the largest carbon production is taking place. For example, the electricity used by the millions of servers that power the programmatic industry has massively contributed to the digital advertising carbon footprint.

There are several steps to decarbonising the industry, and it isn’t something that can be changed overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour. It cannot be a problem that’s picked up and put back down again whenever times get challenging, or agendas get busy. Once you’ve got visibility, then consistency is key.

About the Author

Harvin Gupta is Head of Commercial Partnerships at Scope3. The Scope3 founding team has deep roots in building core Internet infrastructure systems and is led by technology, product, engineering and sustainability leaders from category defining advertising technology innovators.

Featured image: ©Production Perig