The eco footprint of clicking

You are browsing a retailer’s promotions in an online catalog, opening various links to manufacturers’ pages. Once in a while, you hear the sound signaling an incoming e-mail. Perhaps it’s a friend sharing a new charity campaign in which a professionally produced video clip plays a big role.

This is you swimming in the day-to-day flow of digital messages. Environmental issues might not cross your mind until you are at the waste collection point, trying to figure out which container you should put discarded envelopes in.

Hanna Pihkola, a researcher at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, says: “The production chain of digital media products and services involves many different steps, and the environmental impacts are largely invisible to end users.” She is one of the researchers behind Shaping Markets for Sustainability, a VTT-coordinated research project that includes an investigation of the environmental impacts of media.

The impacts are created in four ways: during the product and device life cycle; during content production; during content distribution; and during use. Which of these stages has the highest environmental load depends on the device and the consumer’s usage habits. Reading a single news article has little effect on the world, but as the use of digital media and the production of related devices are increasing at a tremendous rate, the annual environmental impact per user can be considerable.

Determining the environmental impact of something like a digital campaign requires a life cycle assessment.

“First, we need to deconstruct the production chain and determine what activities take place during the planning and production of a campaign,” Pihkola says.“Who performs these activities? Where and how? It is likely that a significant proportion of the impacts arises from similar factors, as with other products and services: electricity and heating consumption in offices, employee commuting and meeting practices. Reducing the electricity consumption of a communications agency also reduces the electricity consumption of the campaigns it plans. This is also the part of the life cycle that the company probably finds it easiest to acquire data on, and the part that the company itself can influence directly.”

Assessing environmental impact over the life cycle is made more challenging by certain special features of digital media, such as the diversity of distribution channels and terminal devices. Due to the rapid rate of technological development, there is only limited information available on the environmental impacts of new distribution channels and media consumption devices. Significant impacts can also arise quite far removed from the company’s own activities owing to, for example, the inappropriate handling of electronic waste.

“In general, devices should be used efficiently and for as long as possible,” Pihkola says. “Doubling the length of time a computer is in use from two to four years can halve the environmental impacts of its use, but content and the channels used to distribute content also matter.”

Could online applications be more ecologically efficient? Could energy conservation during use, for instance, be set as an objective in the design of applications?

Assessing the life cycle environmental impact of digital services is still challenging at this time, but it is already possible to produce indicative estimates. However, more information is required.

“Many companies have started to work on this, but we also need cooperation between the various participants in the life cycle to fill in gaps in the information. Cooperation would be the sensible approach, as many of the issues are shared by several of the parties involved. It is also possible that companies are reluctant to publish information because they are concerned about being subjected to criticism if their analyses are not comprehensive enough. Or perhaps nobody has even asked them about all this. Regardless, I hope there will be a shift in culture in this regard and companies will receive praise for publishing information in this area. After all, it can also be a differentiating factor.”

Text: Sari Kuvaja, Corporate Responsibility Advisor