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How Green Is Your Media—Finland Edition

By on February 6th, 2012

Via Don Carli on The Facebook Machine, over at PIWorld, an interesting new take on the whole print vs. online/“which is greener?” discussion. It reported on a study recently conducted in Finland by publisher Alma Media “determine the life-cycle environmental impacts of three of its newspapers and their respective online services.”

The topline results:

The printed newspaper is, on average, a more ecological news media than an online service. This conclusion is based on a comparison of the environmental impacts of one hour of consumption of each media channel. However, taking into account actual usage volume and consumption hours at the current level, the annual environmental impacts of print media generally outweigh those of a corresponding online service.

The study acknowledges one of the primary difficulties in making head to head comparisons between print and electronic media is that they have very different environmental impacts which are not always easy to compare and contrast. To wit:

The amount of time spent reading does not factor into the environmental impact of the printed newspaper, whereas the impacts of online media are largely dependent on reading time, the number of loaded pages and the technical specifications of the device used to access the service. As a result, conclusions on which type of media is more ecological depend on which functional unit is applied.

The big difference is also where in the consumption process the environmental impacts occur. For print, obviously paper and printing—the front end of the process—are where all the action happens, while for online media, the impacts occur at the back end of the process and involve the production (and, I would add, the powering) of the device on which the content is read. But these impacts can be mitigated:

The publisher can influence the environmental impacts of a printed newspaper by making appropriate purchasing decisions and by improving the energy and materials efficiency of buildings and production operations. The publisher can mitigate the environmental impacts of online services through cooperation with supply chain partners and by communicating with customers on the subject of the ecological consumption of online services. The environmental impacts of content production can be kept in check through the effective management of work-related travel and the methods of transportation used.

Let us also not forget that print and online media often complement rather than compete with each other, and print vs. electronic is not always an either/or proposition. For example, I still subscribe to a fair number of print magazines, and when I find an article of interest and want to blog/tweet/Facebook/etc. about it, I’ll find the online version to link to. And, depending where I happen to be, it will either be from my proper computer, my iPad, or my iPhone. How does all that affect the environmental impact of media? Norman, coordinate!

Anyway, the money quote:

“The results of the study reflect the way different types of media complement each other. Comparing print and online media side by side is not necessarily what we should focus on. Instead, we should examine them as complementary media channels, which is how consumers use them. Knowing the environmental impacts of these operations is the first step in developing effective measures to mitigate them. We should also keep in mind that the media and media technology industries represent approximately 2–4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while media plays a crucial role in building a sustainable society through the content it publishes”, explains Minna Nors, VTT’s Research Scientist in charge of the project.

I heartily concur. As I have repeatedly said in this space, the transition from print to digital media has been happening for a wide variety of reasons—mostly having to do with cost, convenience, timeliness, and relevance—and few of those are strictly environmental in nature (all those “go paperless and save a tree!” exhortations notwithstanding). Print will always play some part in the media mix, but we should be looking at the environmental impacts of all media and work to make better decisions to “green” all the myriad ways people choose to communicate.

  1. 2 Responses to “How Green Is Your Media—Finland Edition”

  2. By Mary Ann Fong on Feb 7, 2012 | Reply

    Well said, Richard! I heartily concur. It’s time for us to drop the “vs.”. . .

  3. By Don Carli on Feb 8, 2012 | Reply

    Thanks for your mention and an excellent post.

    Dropping the “v.s” is not going to work any better than Newt Gingrich expecting a positive campaign against Romney would work.

    Expecting the mainstream dumbed-down “Print vs Digital” comparisons and “Go Digital, Save a Tree” harangues to end is like expecting the campaign finance reform fairy to end negative political advertising and SuperPACs.

    It will not work to go negative in response, nor is it likely that proponents of print will be able to use positive facts or spend enough to win what is essentially an emotional argument.

    However, unlike political advertising which is not covered by truth in advertising laws, when a company makes an environmental benefit claim about it’s product or service, the FTC Act requires that the advertiser must substantiate their claims. If those claims are false or misleading then there are remedies at law as well as self-regulatory actions under the NAD process http://www.nadreview.org/ which can and should be pursued.

    It is unfortunate that in the United States seeking to make or buy products or services primarily because they are “green” has become increasingly unpopular… despite what the science might say, it is our current reality for a number of economic and political reasons.

    That is not the situation elsewhere in the world. Case in point there are a number of major events coming up in Europe this year that are addressing sustainable print and digital media. There will be two MediaMundo events in Germany this spring that I will be speaking at on this topic. One is in Dusseldorf in March and another is will be collocated at DRUPA in May.


    EcoPrint, another event focused on green print media, will be held in Berlin in the fall.


    Best regards,


    Developing fungible metrics for objective comparison of the environmental and social aspects and impacts of various media choices is a wicked problem that has so far failed to gain the support of a significant number of major brands in the U.S., but there is growing evidence that a quorum of leadership is beginning to emerge in Europe.