The environmental impact of paper in an ever expanding digital world Go

We all have a need to communicate – to share and consume information.  For marketing and advertising professionals it is no longer a choice of how to spread dollars between print, radio and TV.  The breadth of online options is simply staggering.  Meanwhile, sustainability-minded media buyers are juggling a myriad of additional factors – along with cost effectiveness, their choices reflect consideration of environmental and social impacts. 

I have often been asked to compare the environmental impact paper vs other media choices; e.g. e-books, electronic greeting cards or online billing vs paper based options.  I have refused to embark on this type of comparative study for two basic reasons.

  • because nobody “wins” in this type of analysis
  • because nobody makes sound choices this way

In other words, no responsible CMO is going to care if an advertising campaign reduced water consumption or cut carbon emissions by 10% if half of the target audience didn’t receive the right message at the right time.   The key to a successful campaign is to get the media choices right (most often through multiple platforms)  and then design and execute responsibly within each channel.

Companies should buy and dispose of electronic equipment responsibly (tools like EPEAT can help).  Good strategies for information storage and retrieval can reduce server loads and the associated environmental impact associated with the use of electronics. 

Similarly, when putting ink on paper, it is important to source, use and dispose of materials properly (consider using EPAT or other paper procurement guidelines).  Good list hygiene, right-sizing pieces and co-mailing can further reduce the environmental impact associated with printed materials.

It is time to stop pitting paper vs pixels and instead to focus on integrating media choices effectively.  The ultimate goal of communications is to deliver the right message to the right person in a means that can be absorbed.  Choose your channels for effectiveness and then design and implement with sustainability at top of mind.

A greenwashing lesson from the packaging industry Go

In recent news the European metal packaging trade association, Empac, claimed legal victory over a plastics manufacturer.  Reportedly the Denmark-based firm Superfos made inaccurate and detrimental environmental claims in brochures and on its website about the benefits of plastic versus metal.  

In a story posted at, Jim Hansen of the Danish Aluminum Association warned against the complexities of comparative analysis and was quoted as saying: “Life cycle analyses (LCA) usually center on someone’s own material.  But if you do make statements about another industry’s material you should be careful.  He went on to add that “it is of no benefit to anybody to greenwash the benefits of your material because all packaging types have their own advantages”.

In the realm of communications we have taken a similar stance as Mr. Hansen.  When asked to compare the life cycle of paper to electronic media, I have refused to do this type of work.  It is difficult enough to compare various paper products and we are striving to establish an industry accepted methodology for doing so.  To make the leap and make comparisons of paper products to electronic devices is simply fraught with pitfalls.  For example, we do not believe it is possible to make accurate claims comparing e-billing to paper billing, or an electronic textbook to a paper textbook.  

We all use electronic devices.  And we all use paper.  The key is to source, use and dispose of these products responsibly.  To paraphrase Mr. Hansen: it is of no benefit to anybody to make environmental comparisons between paper and electronics because each communication means has its own unique advantages.


For more information regarding the environmental assessment of different products, procurement specialists should consider:

EPAT: For Paper

EPEAT: For Electronic Products

Pondering the Impact of Paper and Electronic Devices Go

Paper companies blog.  We have websites and YouTube channels.  We conduct e-mail blasts, share content through pdfs, and like college students most of my co-workers would suffer from withdrawal if someone took away our iPhones and BlackBerry’s for a full day. 

On the flip side we see all forms of media companies advertising in print, magazines being inspired by televisions shows, and after going totally viral on the web even the Story of Stuff went to print.

So which form of communication has less impact on the environment – ink on paper or electronic devices?  I am afraid this is a classic case of “it depends”.   The formats are so completely different it is extremely difficult to make fair comparisons.  As an industry, we struggle with the ability to compare the footprint one magazine to another and yet there is an expectation that we ought to be able to compare the environmental impact of publishing and advertising across different platforms.  And unfortunately, many arguments have been put forth based on just slices of the full life cycle – leaving much room for criticism by pundits.

The Environmental Paper Network has focused on minimizing paper consumption, clean manufacturing, responsible forestry and recycled content.  Electronics watch dogs are concerned about PVC and toxic chemicals used in manufacturing digital devices along with the proper disposal of e-waste.  MetaFore (now part of GreenBlue) developed the EPAT tool to try to educate consumers about environmentally preferable paper and came up with 21 metrics.  Meanwhile, the Green Electronics Council has developed ­EPEAT which evaluates 51 criteria for electronic devices.   

The fact is - everything we do has some form of an environmental impact. So, at a high level, what we need to do is to try to minimize waste across any form of communication.  List hygiene matters whether you are sending catalogs or e-mail blasts.  Good design matters for digital and print.  So when you use paper, select the supplier with the lowest impact.  And when you think about upgrading your smart phone or laptop (again) consider checking out the devices’ environmental credentials.  And don’t forget to shut it off when not in use.

There will no doubt be more on this subject to come – in the meantime, join the dialogue. What do you think: is one means of communication clearly better than the other?