Printing and Saving Trees

One of the most popular misconceptions about print is that it is harmful to the environment. Grinding up trees and using chemical-based inks for printing is (we are told) unsustainable. Large retailers, banks, and telecom companies tell their customers that switching to e-billing will save trees. For the most part, we believe this and repeat it to our friends.

As Benjamin Franklin said, Half a truth is often a great lie.

Its true that paper used for print is mostly based on wood fiber rather than more convenient crops like cotton or hemp. However, the notion of saving trees by using less print is disingenuous. My friend Don Carli of the Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC, often asks marketers making such a claim>[1] to show him precisely what trees are being saved. They cannot answer the question.[2]

In reality, fiber from responsibly managed forests is being replaced continually by the planting of new trees. FSC and other chain-of-custody certifications exist precisely for that reason.

The real discussion is about energy, and the carbon footprint of print versus the alternative: digital media. Its true that harvesting trees, manufacturing paper and ink, running a press, and (especially) transporting printed products from place to place, requires a great deal of energy. However, its also true that digital media requires energy, in the form of data centers and the equipment needed to cool them. The New York Times recently reported on the energy and pollution downside to the information age.

Pundits and analysts have a tendency to cherry-pick information to make a point either pro-print or pro-digital. The fact is we don’t have a meaningful way to describe or compare the energy units of service for either medium. There have been attempts to quantify, for example, the amount of energy and carbon emissions involved in a print advertising campaign, which is extraordinarily difficult. (How do we know whether a kilowatt comes from coal, wind, or hydro? If print is stored, do we count the energy costs of lighting and heating the warehouse? The list is long.)

Quantifying a unit of service for digital is even harder. A single email is created and sent by one system, but received and opened (or more likely discarded) by countless systems, each with its own electricity source and power use profile. Some theoretical models have been attempted, but were really in the early stages, and sustainability has become less of a priority while energy is still cheap.

The bottom line is that both print and e-media have an environmental cost. However, print is getting an undeserved bad reputation, environmentally. For such a versatile and effective medium, with great potential for sustainability, print deserves more respect.

–John Parsons

[1] The save the trees pitch is actually made because e-billing is cheaper for the retailer, bank, or telecom company it avoids printing, mailing and processing costs. The fake environmental issue is simply a more emotionally persuasive argument than convenience or cost savings.

[2] Another pro-print sustainability site worth exploring is TwoSides: