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Sustainability in the creative sector goes far beyond cloud computing


Scott Riley, Director at Cloud Nexus, argues that creative agencies can still do more when it comes to environmental responsibility – and it means more than just moving to the cloud and giving up the office.


Sustainability in business has been huge for a while now, but since COP26, it’s been thrust into the spotlight and actually become a deciding factor for some as to whether a work partnership can be formed.

There’s no denying that every business should be making sustainability a top priority in 2022, but it’s not uncommon to get it wrong believing that moving to the cloud and giving up the office outweigh the overall impact of everyday activities. From email marketing to digital advertising, the impact when added up can be significant.

I’m not by any means suggesting that the UK’s creative industries don’t have a valuable impact on society – in fact quite the opposite.

According to The Guardian, they generate £36 billion for the economy, employ 1.5 million people and bring so much to the world, from design to theatre. And in a post-pandemic era where having a digital presence has never been more important, they play a vital role in keeping businesses relevant and profitable.

But creative agencies in particular have an opportunity and responsibility to shape the world and the health of the planet by becoming more aware of how their operations impact the planet, looking beyond cloud computing.

Cloud computing: Just the foundation 

Sustainability conversations to date focus in on fast fashion, recycling and food waste, but less about our own personal computing habits, which are having more of an impact than people recognise. 

Cloud computing has become mainstream in recent years and in the creative sector, it’s seen as a big move towards more sustainable personal computing – much of the narrative is around how we can use cloud computing to minimise use of physical products. 

But simply putting everything on the cloud and thinking we’ve ticked the sustainability box is not enough. There needs to be closer attention to our overall digital carbon footprint and how this can be reduced company-wide. 

There’s no doubt about it, cloud computing does have environmental benefits; but like many things in life, the journey to sustainability is about understanding the true impact of your actions – the misuse of cloud computing could, in fact, push back your sustainability efforts. 

The cost of incorrect cloud usage

While hugely beneficial, cloud computing doesn’t automatically give a business a sustainability stamp. 

Most businesses are taking a step in the right direction by migrating their data to the cloud, but often don’t envisage where their data is really going. I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but it’s not actually floating around freely and without harm.

Even though businesses have got rid of their physical hard disks, their data is still stored in a physical location, only out of sight. These are called data centres, or often server farms. 

As you can imagine, these centres take an enormous amount of power to run. Luckily, many data centres and cloud providers have begun using renewable energy to source their power, as well as using smart facilities that use free-air cooling methods and energy monitor systems for the devices within the data centres.

An effective way to ensure you are practicing true sustainability is to ensure your data centre has BREEAM certification, a sustainability assessment for projects, infrastructure, and buildings. Certification means they’re not using dirty energy to store your data.

The environmental cost of creativity

While it’s easy to lobby for billboards and prints to use recycled papers and non-toxic ink, the sustainability of online creativity is much harder to understand. 

But it’s something that the creative sector needs to. Carbon footprints need to be measured effectively in order to make real strides towards sustainability. Research shows that the internet represents 4% of global emissions, and whilst that doesn’t sound like much, it’s almost double the aviation industry. 

Take online advertising. It’s not just the advert itself which is racking up the carbon usage. The graphics that the consumer sees are made up of pixels, which needs a lot of data to run.

What’s more, third-party programmes that track the uptake of the ad and collect the data of the consumer to create targeted profiles are often forgotten when it comes to sustainability tracking – but these kinds of outputs are what’s dampening the creative sector’s sustainability efforts. 

Creative agencies should be conscious of choosing green hosts for websites and be more conscious of how much carbon is racked up through third-party programmes. It’s worthwhile to get a true calculation of how much carbon you are producing as an individual or creative agency.

Whether it’s emails, social posts, landing pages, or impressions, using a carbon footprint calculator can give you a more accurate understanding of the impact of your campaigns. 

Does that email really need to be sent?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who can admit that their inbox has been filled with unwanted emails in the past. The thing is, an email equates to roughly 4 grams of CO₂, with an average business user creating a carbon footprint of around 135kg just from sending, reading and storing emails. This raises the question – does that email really need to be sent?

OVO Energy research suggests that if every adult in the UK sent one less ‘thank you’ email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year. For perspective, that’s the same as taking over 3,000 diesel cars off the road.

The problem is that communication between stakeholders is key. It’s imperative to have that contact in order to produce the work, but if we are deeming means of communication as unsustainable, how do we proceed?

It’s all about circumstance and seeing the bigger picture. The truth is, an SMS text generates significantly less CO₂ than an email, a phonecall generates only slightly more than a text, while a video call produces more than any of the above. 

Sustainability is about perspective, though. If you jump on a video call with a global client, with whom you generally communicate via email, you’re of course going to be much more sustainable than flying to meet in person.

We have to think about what works within the context of our businesses to keep the creative sector thriving, but with a priority of sustainable practices. Awareness is key. If we know the impact of the tools we’re using, we can be more conscious of how much they are utilised in creative practice.

How many systems?

Creative agencies have a reliance upon a vast range of tools and platforms to operate, from creating graphics and writing copy to analytics reports and CRM tools. We’ve already raised that there is an environmental cost to tools needed in the creative sector, but are agencies using an unnecessary amount?

Research by the Winterberry Group shows that marketers on average use 12 different platforms regularly, with around 10% saying they often need 31 or more different tools, platforms or systems to be able to do their job. Marketing is just one industry within the creative sector – the number of tools used across the industry is unimaginable. 

The key to maintaining control with the amount of tool usage and its impact on sustainability is to try and opt for tools and platforms that offer integrated services and packages that give you multiple capabilities under one umbrella. 

As a simple example, Office 365 offers built-in, collaborative features under one integrated experience. Being able to access apps such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as Online File Sharing and Video Conferencing allows you to use multiple different tools from one overriding system, meaning you’re generating less power to run more of the tools you need.

Do you really need to be storing files in Google, Box, Dropbox, Sharefile and Microsoft? All those files being actively available online needs servers and datacentres, and that all adds the problem.

Moving forward

The fact the creative sector is looking for new ways to continue their professional practice in a more sustainable way is a step in the right direction. But a lot of improvements need to be made.

Cloud computing is a great step towards sustainability, but you still must be conscious of how it works, and mindful it does not grant you sustainable immunity.

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