Email saves trees!

The arrival of my first spam email was a bit of a shock. I’d been on the internet for years by that point and had never seen junk mail in my inbox. Of course, the Internet was a very different place. The web was still a toddler. There was no email marketing industry. In fact, there wasn’t much commerce on the web at all. Much of the “surfing” I did was using gopher and ftp rather than the fancy new web browser called NCSA Mosaic. To share pictures we actually had to send printouts by postal mail.
It wasn’t just getting spam that was memorable (oh, great! now my inbox is going to look like my postal box, stuffed full of things I don’t want), it was the domain name: Built into the domain name was an entire argument defending spam on the grounds of environmental friendliness. By sending spam instead of postal mail we could save the earth. Anyone who didn’t like it was morally corrupt and must hate the planet.
Why do I mention this history? During a discussion on a list for marketers earlier this week, multiple people mentioned that email marketing was clearly and obviously the much more environmentally sound way to do things. I mentioned this over on Facebook and one of my librarian friends (who was one of the people I was email friends with back in those early days) started doing her thing.
She posted her findings over on the Environmental News Bits blog: The comparative environmental impact of email and paper mail. It’s well worth a read, if only because a lot of companies have really looked into the issue in great detail. Much greater detail than I thought was being put into the issue.
I shared one of the links she found, the 2009 McAfee study, with the email marketing group discussing the issue. (You may want to put down the drinks before reading the next line.) It was universally panned as marketing and therefore the conclusions couldn’t be trusted.
Anyone who pays any attention knows that nothing we do and none of the choices we make are environmentally neutral. Plastic bags were supposed to save trees from becoming paper bags, but turned into an environmental mess of their own.
Simple slogans like “email saves trees” might make marketers feel better, and may have gained Cyberpromo a strong customer base in the early days. But the reality is different.

The bottom line: Although e-mail appears to be a better environmental choice than paper mail because there is no obvious up-front waste stream, the research paints a much more nuanced picture, particularly when the including the environmental impact of electronics manufacturing and data center operation. ENB

Many thanks to L.B. for putting the research together.


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