If you know me, you know that I like to talk about sustainability in print. I like to encourage printers to adopt environmentally friendly technologies and share their commitments to the environment with their customers, as well as discuss innovative products that give their clients fresh, interesting new environmental stories to tell.

But sometimes it’s important for us to back up and ask a more fundamental question: In terms of sustainability, is print a responsible choice? How does it stack up against other marketing channels? Are email, mobile, and social media marketing “greener” simply because they don’t require a physical substrate, consumables, or distribution?

Greenwashing is all around us, so these are questions you need to be ready to answer, and answer with conviction.  Not just you, but your salespeople, your CSRs, your business development people, and your marketing people, too.

The answer is no, digital channels are not greener than print. While electronic alternatives are often framed this way, they have their own environmental footprints. As reported in a recent article in The Washington Post,

There’s a whole infrastructure behind every message, which includes not only the electricity you use but also the energy it takes to store and transmit that information through data centers. [1]

This is critical for marketers to understand because it may very well be the most misunderstood issue when it comes to digital marketing versus print. Just because you can’t see digital’s environmental impact on the surface doesn’t mean it’s not there.  While our nation has continued to invest in alternative energy sources, the overwhelming majority of our energy consumed—the energy that drives our massive IT infrastructure which, in turn, is driven by consumers’ insatiable desire for digital media consumption—still comes from fossil fuels. (In 2015, this was 81% of our energy use, according to the National Academy of Sciences.[2])

Second, with continual advancements in print technologies, clients need to understand that print marketing looks a lot different than it used to.

  • Traditional offset is a lot cleaner, more efficient, and focused on cradle-to-grave responsibility than even a few years ago.
  • Commercial printing is one of the heaviest users of alternative energy like wind and solar, especially in the form of RECs (renewable energy credits).
  • The printing industry not only consumes tons of recycled paper but is one of the largest recyclers of paper, cardboard, and other fiber-based substrates.
  • The maturation of digital technologies, with their lack of plates, “clean office” environment production, and lower energy consumption, have changed print’s environmental footprint even further.
  • Today’s marketing focus, even in print, is on targeting. This means that the print that is being produced is being distributed more strategically, minimizing unnecessary waste.

Here’s another fact that most marketers don’t realize: The use of forest-based products such as paper and paperboard actually helps to preserve today’s forestland. Sixty percent of the forestland in the United States is privately owned. If these forests did not generate revenue for their owners, that land would be at risk for development. By using paper, marketers are actually encouraging the preservation of forestland, not destroying it. (I regularly throw this fact around when I’m out and about, and it’s very telling how many people are absolutely shocked when they hear it.)

It’s critical for your customers to understand that, if they are looking to “green” their marketing, they don’t have to abandon their love of print in favor of electronic alternatives. In fact, by using print, they are making a very sustainable choice!

Is your company actively telling this story? If not, why on earth not?

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/01/25/how-bad-is-email-for-the-environment/?utm_term=.186856020fe4

[2] http://needtoknow.nas.edu/energy/energy-sources/