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Is Going Paperless Just Another Greenwashing Tactic?

Going paperless to save the environment? This article examines the idea of paper and the digital economy. While accepting that there is tremendous growth in digitalisation, there is also the danger of assuming our internet habits are clean when they are not. It also gives a brief overview of reducing our carbon footprints and other telecommunications that contribute to carbon dioxide. The conclusion is that corporations continue to play their denial game, however, the author believes that there is still hope in preserving our natural environment.

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Going paperless is the motto in many industries – hotels, banks, telcos. You name it. 

Please consider the environment before printing this email” is a sentence we tend to see commonly in our inboxes. Have people seen the sentence “please consider the digital space before sending this email or uploading this attachment”? I’m afraid not. 

The purpose of the statement is to conserve paper by not printing unnecessary documents. What is considered unnecessary? For example, during Model United Nations (MUN) conferences or training, it is mandatory to print every single piece of information on paper. Sticky notes are distributed almost every single minute. 

Paper: Asset or Liability? 

According to the Guardian post titled “is digital really greener than paper?” (2014)

The paper industry “disputes the assumption that going digital is better for the environment”. It also wants to eradicate the claims that mislead consumers, and research isn’t enough to prove that going digital is better. For example, Two Sides, a membership organisation representing the paper and print industry, persuaded more than 20 major US companies to remove their green claims in promoting e-billing as a more environmentally friendlier alternative as opposed to paper. Phil Riebel, the president at Two Side US, commented that the organisations were all Fortune 500 companies. 

Riebel mentioned “challenging the environmental claims around electronic versus paper” where there are many factors that are not in consideration like forestry practices or using massive amounts of papers to print in homes. 

Is going paperless really better for the environment?

Paper is given a bad name. Mark Pitts, the executive director of printing-writing at the American Forest And Paper Association (AFANDPA), commented that claims regarding paper manufacturing resulting in mass deforestation and its significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions are “just plain wrong”. 

Digital media appears to be more sustainable from the looks of things. However, manufacturing electronic products leaves a carbon footprint and energy to power the products.

There is inadequate solid information that going paperless is a better alternative. Riebel mentioned that both life cycles are different for paper and are older than e-media in relative terms. It is imperative to prove that companies have analysed both outlets and have evidence to back their claim on electronics exhibiting lower impacts compared to paper. What Riebel said is true about the cautious tread to “pin one product against the other and say it’s better” and lacking the data to back it up is “a tricky thing”. 

There is a necessary action to take which is the constant pursuit of more research for electronic footprints, implying there is no “average environmental footprint” for e-media either”, said Arpad Horvath, a professor of engineering at the University of California-Berkeley, who published a study on the environmental impact of wireless technologies in 2004.

Just like the digital economy, the fashion industry poses such a problem. Terry Nguyen, the writer of “Fast Fashion, Explained”, noted there is no official research to fully encompass the fashion industry’s environmental impact. On a global level, the industry is resource-intensive and it is difficult to definitively quantify its impact. Fast fashion brands can shift the blame to middleman factories “conveniently distance their brand from wrongdoing”. 

Unfortunately, “[f]or 99.9 per cent of projects, the green initiative has nothing to do with it,” said Shamel Naguib, the president at Paperless Productivity, assisting medium to large companies to go electronic to eliminate paper documents. “It has everything to do with saving money.” Despite him starting the company eleven years ago, going paperless was “never about going green”. Naguib also mentioned the fact that costs and money are indispensable and that he is not acquainted with “anyone who is investing money just to be green.”  

The ideal way is using both electronic and print media in ways to suit our social, environmental and economic needs, says Riebel. 

Digitalisation Is a Boon

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Electronic media may be young – while there is a necessity to have greater adequate research, it does not dismiss the fact that digitalisation is a bane – in fact, it is a boon. 

In Singapore, companies are trying to find a cloud solution to alleviate stress in invoicing. 

One of the major obstacles is the conversion from physical to digital formats and vice versa. 66.3 per cent of paper invoices have to be scanned into electronic files, while 52.8 per cent of invoices received in electronic file format had to be manually printed out. Edward Senju, Regional CEO of Sansan, commented that there is an obvious necessity for a cloud solution to allow businesses “to submit both paper and digital formats to a single address”, then comes the automation process and cloud storage. What would be optimal is paper invoices directed to physical post addresses and digital PDFs directed to email addresses to resolve the challenge that saves time and cost, and reduces employee commute during the COVID-19 season. 

The Cold, Hard Truth of Internet Habits

If we assume that our internet habits are clean, we have to think twice about it. Mike Hazas, a researcher at Lancaster University, explained that the carbon footprint of gadgets, the internet and systems make up an estimate of 3.7 per cent of greenhouse emissions, which is similar to the airline industry. Mike also commented that the emissions may double by 2025. 

The “personal and systematic changes to reduce the internet’s environmental impact and a transition to a low-carbon economy” is paramount, said Maryam Arbabzadeh, a postdoc at MIT Energy Initiative. Researchers at MIT, Purdue and Yale University analysed three significant environmental footprints of water, land and carbon as they are related to internet usage and infrastructure. In summary, greater usage in videos results in higher footprints. For example, streaming services like Netflix or Hulu, demand 7 gigabytes per hour of video streaming that is of high quality. This in turn transposes to an average of 441g CO2e per hour. Streaming for four hours a day for a month leads to an emission rise to 53kg CO2e. But “standard definition” streaming results in monthly footprints of 2.5kg CO2e, saving emissions that equate to driving from Baltimore about 150km.

Figuring out the internet habits of our carbon footprint is not an easy feat. There is little consensus on the inclusion aspect like manufacturing emissions, the staff in technology companies and the disputed figures of data centres that run on renewable energy or purchase “carbon offsets”. 

It’s not just the UK – if every individual sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year which is the equivalent to taking 3,334 diesel cars off the grid, energy company, OVO, says.

An individual using a search engine to make around 50 search queries per day can produce 26kg of CO2 per year. Add that up for millions of individuals. Google has been putting out environmental reports estimating its carbon footprint. Its 2017 report puts its carbon footprint for 2016 at 2.9 million tonnes of CO2e and its electrical energy consumption at 6.2 terawatt-hours.

Ways to Reduce Digital Carbon Footprints

Some ways to reduce digital carbon footprints are unsubscribing from mailing lists we no longer read or not sending messages to multiple recipients and cutting back on using Youtube as background noise from its unintentional playing. Antispam service, Cleanfox, comments that the average user gets 2,850 unwanted emails from annual subscriptions that account for 28.5kg CO2e.

I’m a fan of physical books as you might have deduced – so it was shocking for me to find that the web is “more sustainable” to search for information compared to books. Paperback’s carbon footprint accounts for 1kg CO2e and a weekend newspaper accounts for 0.3kg to 4.1kg CO2e, thus reading the news online is considered “more environmentally friendly”. However, that does not stop me from reading physical books – You do not have to alter your whole lifestyle just to combat climate change. 

The division goes like this: Dividing 1.6 billion tonnes of greenhouse emissions that are approximately produced in the manufacture and digital technologies, every individual is responsible for 414kg of carbon dioxide annually.

Other Telecommunication Modes That Generate Carbon Dioxide

Breakdown of the things that happen on the internet. | Photo credit:

According to the French think tank, The Shift Project, online videos make up 60 per cent of internet traffic, generating 300m tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, 1 per cent of global emissions. Device usage and energy consumption by servers and networks distribute the content, thus generating an exponential figure. 

Unfortunately, browsing pornography makes up a third of video stream traffic, which garners as much carbon dioxide as Belgium.

On-demand video services, watching Youtube and clips on social media account for one-sixth of carbon footprint where the former takes one-third and watching clips take the rest. Netflix says the total global energy consumption attained 451,000 megawatt-hours per year that can power 37,000 homes. However, they insist that the company buys renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets to compensate for any energy that comes from fossil fuel sources. Streaming and downloading music also have an impact. In summary: Researcher & lead scientist, Rabih Bashroush, a European Commission-funded Eureca project, found that five billion plays by Despacito, a hit in 2017, consumed electricity that was almost equivalent to Chad and Somalia, put together. Adding that just streaming the song “could be over 250,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.” 

Kaveh Madan, who directed the study about environmental impacts, insisted that there is no conversation about the “benefits of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality”, whereas banking systems give information about the benign direction of “going paperless”. Without one’s consent, streaming platforms increase the environmental footprint.

Corporations Continue to Play the Plausible Deniability Game

The term “greenwashing” was invented by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 who criticised the “save the towel” movement in hotels. Academic Karen Becker refers to this movement as the false practice of promoting the environmental efforts as green rather than actually engaging in “environmentally sound practises.”

Various industries like fashion, continue to use tactics of greenwashing. For example, FAANG – consisting of Meta, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet – rapidly advances their technology, claiming to save the environment by overworking our digital systems. Electronic media use may leapfrog paper, the way Nokia became obsolete because of their reluctance to change their operating systems (among other things). However, if we are able to use both electronic and print media to suit our needs, there is the inclination to analyse in greater detail both usages, instead of claiming that going electronic is a better alternative. We all have a part to reduce our carbon footprints, but large corporations hold that responsibility of accountability and transparency. For reasons out of the purview of the article, I believe that COP 26 may be a failure, but ladies and gentlemen, there is hope – hope because individuals are fighting for what is right to preserve our natural environment.

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