Some Thoughts for Earth Day

by | Apr 22, 2010 | Sensical News

Mountaintop removal in Harlan, Kentucky

Online media may be less green than print, thanks to mountaintop removal. Photo by Unanimousgraphics / CC BY 2.0

For the 40th anniversary of Earth Day today, we wanted to share a few thoughts about sustainability and print design.

One of the more visible signs of “sustainability thinking” in our daily lives is the effort by companies to reduce the amount of paper we, their customers, receive. Banks, utilities, and the like, for example, have been encouraging people to switch to paperless statements and online billing “for the sake of the environment.” And we’ve all seen the common email tagline, “Please consider the environment before printing this message.”

But paper and printing have gotten a bad rap here. In fact, digital media can be just as much of an environmental problem, if not more. Why? Much of the electricity used to power the data centers where the Internet lives is derived from coal, one of the greatest contributors to global warming. And the mountaintop removal system of coal extraction widely used in Appalachia is directly responsible for deforestation (another global warming trigger), biodiversity loss, and pollution of rivers and streams. (We’re indebted to Don Carli for his excellent work on this issue. See “Is Digital Media Worse for the Environment Than Print?”)

On the other hand, paper these days is often created with energy from renewable biomass, wind, or hydroelectricity. Responsibly sourced paper can actually be a factor in slowing deforestation. The printing industry has started a campaign, Print Grows Trees, to address this issue. They claim that, by giving landowners an incentive to replant trees rather than deforesting the land in favor of crops or, worse, suburban sprawl, printing can save trees and slow global warming.

Take their information with a grain of salt. You still need to make a distinction between diverse, natural forests and monoculture tree farms. Uses that convert the former to the latter are not doing the world a lot of good. And there are still carbon consequences to making paper from virgin fiber that this argument doesn’t address, not to mention the energy involved in running printing presses and transporting paper. But the point is that printed material is not necessarily worse for the environment than online media.

And, we should note, companies also have a financial incentive to reduce their print usage. Printing and mailing paper statements is more expensive than emailing a PDF or a link to a website. There are times when print is appropriate, and times when it isn’t.

So what should you do? Minimize paper usage, using recycled paper whenever possible. Look for FSC or SFI certification when buying paper and printing (or any other wood products) to ensure responsible forestry. Use the tools at Renourish to choose environmentally sound paper or an eco-aware printer. And support efforts to protect existing forests and plant new ones at home and abroad (via land trusts, carbon offset programs, etc.).

When setting up a website, consider using an ISP powered by renewable energy rather than coal.

At Sensical Design we strive for sustainability both in our office and our design work. We have purchased carbon offsets for our business through AIGA’s CarbonCool program. We donate approximately 1 percent of our revenues each year to Environmental Defense Fund to support their global warming efforts. And we are on the AIGA’s sustainable design task force, supporting and helping to spread the Living Principles for Design. We help our clients print and publish in environmentally responsible ways, and help other designers do the same. How can we help you?

For more detail on this issue, including discussion of “dark data” and the recently expanded Lacey Act, see “Print vs. Digital Media: False Dilemmas and Forced Choices.”