Print your inbox to save energy

Sensemaking / Print your inbox to save energy

It may sound like a shocking proposition, but as Roger East delves into the costs of online data storage, he finds it carries some weight.

By Roger East / 17 Oct 2012

It may sound like a shocking proposition, but as Roger East delves into the costs of online data storage, he finds it carries some weight. 

“Please consider the environment before printing. Then print.” In essence, that’s the message coming from print media people who are increasingly bullish about their industry’s sustainability credentials – when it’s acting smart. And increasingly prepared to take on the facile belief that electronic communication will automatically have less environmental impact.

Laurel Brunner’s company Digital Dots helped set up the Verdigris Project to get to grips with printing’s footprint. She recently posted a blog provocatively entitled “Print out your emails”: those that aren’t essentially ephemeral, that is. Once they’re in your hands, she argues, the documents you want to keep need no further inputs. Brunner contrasts the print industry’s one-off costs, and paper’s reliance on “a crop that can be harvested and replenished”, with the digital media’s massive electronic infrastructure, and dependence on energy that must be deployed in perpetuity.

It’s an argument that only holds water, so to speak, if printers can certify their paper sourcing as sustainable, and credibly calculate – and minimise – their other impacts. Which is why Brunner devoted what she disarmingly describes as “a stupid amount of time and energy” into helping develop the international standard ISO 16759 for calculating the carbon footprint of print media. Now in its final round of voting, it should be ready for publication early next year.

With print buyers increasingly asking for clear and reliable reassurance, there has already been something of a proliferation of carbon calculators in the graphics industry. Anyone who went to this September’s international Ecoprint gathering would have felt they’d gone naked into the conference chamber if they couldn’t show they had such sums at their fingertips. And companies like Munich-based Climate Partners are on hand to help them go one step further, offering to arrange carbon offsets to balance the customised stats that emerge from their Footprint Manager.

We’re not just talking books, magazines and office printing here – far from it. Footprinting cuts more and more ice these days in areas like point of purchase (POP) displays. Indeed, Nick Widdowson, the range and merchandising manager at Unilever UK, says unequivocally that “the most important development in sustainability for me” is a new tool by POP Advertising International (POPAI). In simple terms, this allows people like him to benchmark their suppliers against the combined impact of their materials, processes and other factors such as distance to travel, recycled content and end-of-life destiny.

Might all this interest in measuring suggest an industry longing for some laurels to rest on? Hardly plausible, in the light of public perception. And still less so, given that pretty much everything is up in the air in terms of what we want to print, when, where and how. The advent of 3D printing, for instance, offers the chance of a sea-change in the range of what the industry can aspire to do.

Even for books, seemingly the most traditional of all print products, we are surely living in what the Chinese sages would call “interesting times”. It has been calculated, by The Economist, that 30% of UK output gets sent back to the publisher unopened – but digital on-demand printing is now beginning to make real inroads into this depressing truth. The flexibility it allows, says HP’s Stephen Goddard, can help make economic sense of print runs of between one copy and several thousand: a critical factor in cutting waste and environmental impact. You can’t get much more down to earth than that.

Roger East is a freelance writer and editor.

Pureprint is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: Creatas/thinkstock

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