The Environmental Impact of Today’s Marketing and How to Be Even More Sustainable

On March 1, 2020, New York state banned plastic bags from stores. That caused a ripple effect, wherein consumers across the state had to either pay a small fee for a paper bag or bring their reusable bags.

Reactions were mixed to the say the least. Here are some of the statements I’ve heard in response to the statewide plastic bag ban:

  • Why should we bother? Much of our food is stored in single-use plastic when we buy it.
  • This bag ban motivated me to get into the habit of bringing my reusable bags to the grocery store.
  • Using paper bags means we kill more trees; is that better for the environment?

I fall into the second category. I have had a variety of reusable bags for years, but I didn’t use them with consistency until the statewide bag ban loomed.  I read a helpful tip, which said, always turn down bags, even if you forget your reusable ones. Go the route of Aldi and have the cashier just load groceries into your cart, you can bag them at your car or with your reusable bags when you get home.

It was about changing my habits to adapt. Then I started to think about modern marketing and how today’s marketing is already much more sustainable than it was even ten years ago. HIPB2B turns 11 this week, and it was a great incentive to explore the idea of modern marketing, sustainability, and its environmental impact.  We can change our digital and business habits to decrease or offset our carbon emissions and waste production in the office as well as our homes.

Junk Mails’ Impact

There are a couple of ways to think about sustainability in terms of marketing and running business:

  1. Production of waste and how long it takes to break down.
  2. Carbon footprint – the total amount of CO2 produced by a company or business.

Let’s look at marketing in the context of each of these ideas.

Production of Waste

The average American receives 41 pounds of junk mail a year. Most of that junk mail isn’t even opened before it’s thrown out. That results in 5.6 million tons of junk mail in landfills each year. That’s a reduced number from before digital marketing, and social media took over a lot of those paper communications.

In its peak in 2007, the USPS delivered 103.5 billion pieces of junk mail per year. Now, that number stands closer to 80 billion pieces as of 2019. That’s a significant reduction of more than 20 billion pieces of paper.

But that number is still high.  We can assume that much of that junk mail is now replaced by email and social media marketing messages.

Now let’s move on to carbon emissions.

Carbon Emissions

Interestingly, you can think about paper mail not only as creating a larger carbon footprint, but also the loss of CO2 absorbing trees. To create this massive amount of junk mail, you’d need to cut down approximately 80-100 million trees each year. Those trees, left standing, would absorb 1.7 million tons of CO2 each year. Those calculations don’t even factor in the amount of CO2 produced, and fossil fuels burned to create, then transport all that junk mail. They also don’t account for the tree plantations where much of the wood is sourced from. These monoculture tree plantations are much less effective at absorbing CO2 than a diverse, natural forest.

Paper marketing mail isn’t doing the planet, our forests, or our climate any good. But is digital that much better?

Let’s investigate.

Digital Messaging’s Impact

We are going to examine digital marketing using the same criteria as we did for junk mail. After all, just because digital means less blatant waste in our homes and offices doesn’t mean it’s waste or carbon emission-free.

Digital Produces Physical Waste

Fewer paper processes have translated into more devices, screens, and batteries than ever before. An estimated 50 million tons of “e-waste” is produced each year. This includes 30 million computers in the USA alone.

That’s not counting any of the byproducts produced from the process of creating these products. But even with these concerns, the waste generated by electronics day-to-day is less than when all operations were paper and required manual delivery methods.

Let’s move on to the carbon footprint of electronics.

Carbon Emissions of Digital

Just because there is no paper delivery with a fossil fuel-driven vehicle delivery method involved with digital doesn’t mean that hosting, storing, and creating content is emission-less.

Quite the contrary.

Some internet processes are relatively harmless. The hosting of a single website on a shared server only generates an estimated 20 pounds of CO2 per year. That is a small number, but with the energy consumed by building the hardware, and creating and maintaining both the backend and the user experience, the energy generated builds up.

For a digital giant like Facebook, that translates to an estimated 103 million pounds of CO2 per day. For reference, that’s equivalent to 6.6 million gallons of gasoline burned each day.  We aren’t all Facebook, but we all use it, and hearing that massive number makes you think about the environmental impact of today’s data giants.

The average business user’s email carbon footprint totals at about 300 pounds of CO2 per user per year. Compared to the amount of CO2 resulting from creating, producing and delivering junk mail, that number seems low. It’s the equivalent in CO2 produced as driving around 200 miles in a car. Not bad, though the number adds up with the number of business users there are.

Ideally, we would move away from using paper at all as a marketing material, at least in the direct mail sense. Business has already moved away from paper document signing, which will only continue as more companies make the switch. But what else can your business do to improve its sustainability and reduce its carbon footprint? Try these tips:

  • Buy electronics with an eye towards the future –streamline your electronics so you won’t have to replace them as quickly
  • Repair before you replace – Here at HIPB2B, we are good about repairing and reusing devices, so we don’t need to throw out as many machines
  • Optimize charging – teaching users to maximize their battery and computer life will save you on power consumption and reduce your carbon footprint
  • Reduce streaming – 1 gram of CO2 is produced for every 10 minutes of YouTube watched. Despite video conversion rates, make sure the streaming content you create is conscious, helpful, and necessary.
  • Design low-carbon websites – Websites designed to consume less energy have faster load times. You could even see if you can host your site on a server run by renewable energy.
  • Host in cooler climates – that means you use less energy to cool any server you might be hosting.
  • Plant a tree – planting a tree can offset your website hosting emissions and possibly cover some of the costs for heating or cooling your office space.

These are just a handful of ways you can start to reduce your carbon footprint. We don’t think of our digital usage as something that creates carbon, but there are ways we can reduce our impact in the digital space for real-life carbon emission reductions.

Whatever steps you take, talk about them. Digital is better for the environment than paper, so boast if your company is paperless. Learn how you can reduce or offset your carbon emissions or physical waste. Talking about your sustainability efforts is good marketing and good for the planet.

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