Digital vs Traditional Media – The Environmental Impact

Analytics & Data Article
20 mins

Awareness of the environmental impact of our professional and personal lives is at an all time high, and for most of us we make a conscious effort to reduce our carbon footprint and do our bit for the environment.

We recycle our waste, proudly carry our bags for life to the supermarket and use public transport and car sharing to reduce our emissions. Our efforts carry on into the office where we print less and email more, video conference instead of driving to meetings and make better use of the technology available to avoid a heavy cost to the environment.

But as we merrily go about pasting anti print messages to the bottom of our emails, insisting on emailable forms and posting our meeting notes on big screens, do we really have any idea of the environmental cost of the technology we are using.

There is no doubt that the internet has revolutionized the way we work, making access to information as easy as pushing a button. But most of us rarely think about the energy needed to maintain a global network of telecommunications, nor do we spare much though for the vast data centres around the world that manage the mass of traffic 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

So really how much ‘greener’ is technology compared to traditional print media and advertising. These days we are more likely to tweet or facebook our campaign messages or develop viral campaigns than we are to pay for huge billboards or brochure printing but this doesn’t mean that this doesn’t carry a ‘cost’.

According to Greenpeace, if the internet were a country it would rank 5th for the amount of energy it uses sitting just below Japan. When put into this context, it sounds fairly shocking. However the internet isn’t a country, it is in fact the collective energy of the internet’s global usage.

But surprisingly Greenpeace isn’t against data centres. Tom Dowdall, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, said at a recent conference “We are not against data centres – we want them to lead the way to a green energy revolution.” According to Dowdall, ICT is crucial to tackling climate change, and if you consider how fundamental the internet and digital marketing has been on raising awareness, it’s unlikely we would have seen the significant shift in both personal and political efforts without it.

The real focus seems to be on whether data centres use ‘dirty’ energy, non sustainable and inefficient systems. In it’s report ‘How dirty is your data?’ Greenpeace analysed the data centres of the top 10 global cloud companies and found a lack of investment for the most part on providing clean energy, instead opting for cheap energy in areas where ‘dirty’ fuel is cheap.

The 10 companies were asked to provide as much detail as possible so that an assessment could be made about their energy use levels. Not everyone was forthcoming so the figures in the table below are calculated based on estimates of power demands from the evaluated centres.


Taken from Greenpeace report ‘How dirty is your data?’

A few companies appear to have taken notice of environmental campaigns against their data centres, Facebook in particular took the matter to heart almost immediately, installing huge solar panels next to it’s centre in Oregon which now power the 300,000 sq ft facility.

Greenpeace targeted Facebook with a hard-hitting campaign against their dirty data centres.

IBM have taken this a step further and outlined a solution which has relevance for anyone providing a similar service. Not only have they laid out the environmental issues, but they also see providing green energy as a means of gaining a powerful competitive advantage. It’s worth a read.

There’s no doubt that using digital marketing instead of traditional print media has a positive impact on the environment but we really should become more aware of the energy our digital efforts use and how green our suppliers are.

It’s us as consumers that influence how our service is provided and opting for suppliers who use renewable energy sources is a good way to encourage those lagging behind to step up to plate and take better care of our planet.

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