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Marketing Mojo: Why Going Paperless isn't the same as Going Green

Technology over the past few years has rapidly changed the way we interact with one another.  Not just in terms of personal communication, but also in how we consume media and other products.  If you've ever purchased a music track from your phone instead of buying a CD, or read a book on your Kindle instead of buying a hardback copy, then you are part of that change. Say what you will about digital technology, but it's definitely not going away. sunny-tree-boughs.jpgWhat is curious is how digital forms of communication became synonymous with being "environmentally conscious". Businesses tout going "paperless" as an ecofriendly solution - making you think you're doing something good for the planet when you opt to receive an email instead of a paper statement. The truth is much more complicated. Says Fred Bercovitch, a wildlife conservation biologist at Kyoto University:
Arguing about paper or paperless as a more ecofriendly tactic is as productive as arguing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin. Reading a printed newspaper on a couch should not be considered as an attribute of someone who is ruining the planet by supporting a paper option anymore than using a Toyota Prius should be considered an attribute of someone who is not ruining the planet by using a hybrid vehicle. We simply confront a devilish dilemma. There is no free-ride, only conscientious attempts to keep the ride as low cost as possible.
In the article quoted above, Bercovitch goes into great depth about the ecological impact that our passion for technology has had on the planet.  He talks about the processes of mining for the REES (rare earth elements) that make up things like the rechargeable batteries in our cell phones and power our satellites.  He mentions electronic waste and how much of it we produce each year, and then on the other side of the coin he talks about deforestation and the paper manufacturing process and how both industries have had a devastating effect on parts of the environment at different times and in different regions.
According to one estimate, 145.5 kJ (kilojoules; a unit of energy) are required to produce one sheet of paper, while 153.3 kJ are used by a desktop while reading two pages of print on the monitor. According to another estimate, the power consumed by one computer over a one month period is about the same amount as used in producing 88 pounds of paper, which the average person consumes in less than six months. Even when a desktop is turned off, electricity is still consumed. Paper is no more a panacea for protecting the planet than is paperless.
So which is better?  Clearly the answer isn't so black-and-white.  One thing we know for sure, is that the paper industry has changed a great deal in the last twenty years.  We've linked before to Print Is Big, but I mention it every time the discussion comes up - because it is a great source of simple facts about the print and paper industries.  Two Sides North America is also a fantastic reference for sustainability facts.  Paper and Digital Technology both have their value, and their negatives, but it's safe to say that we can't assume that one is better for the planet than the other. Read the full article by Fred Bercovitch on

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