The following is a response to this recent article by Mr. Raz Godelnik:
Two Sides is well aware of the Life-cycle studies done in this field. Our goal is not to do life cycle assessments, but to encourage companies to carefully compare electronic communications to paper-based communications (using LCA) so that their communication choices are based on sound scientific evidence. We also believe that LCAs need to follow recognized standards and be peer-reviewed by an expert panel, as recommended by ISO (International Standardization Organization).
The Two Sides campaign is aimed at identifying and eliminating environmental claims that are not factual and not substantiated. If a company decides to do a peer-reviewed LCA and finds e-billing to be more favorable then we are OK with that, as long as the sensitivity analysis is clear on when LCA results start favoring paper billing. As Mr. Godelnik notes, there are circumstances in the Telstra LCA when the global warming impacts of e-billing is greater.
The LCAs we have reviewed, including the Telstra study cited by Mr. Godelnik and others not mentioned in his article, have been available on the Two Sides website for some time. There is a great review by Dr. Peter Arnfalk on the environmental impacts of e-media and paper. This is a must read since it reviews several LCAs. Simply go to the Reports and Studies page (under Resources) and submit a search by clicking the “Life cycle Assessment” box on the right hand side of the page.
It should be clear from Mr. Godelnik’s examples and the LCAs on the Two Sides website that such assessments are very case-specific, as they should be, due to the many variables that must be considered. LCAs are best used in specific situations and the results of one study should not be used to generalize for all situations. This is one of the basic rules of life cycle evaluation and of environmental marketing when it comes to using LCA results.
So, results depend on assumptions and data used in the LCA. All situations are different.
Key parameters which greatly influence the magnitude of the environmental benefits are:
- Time spent on the Internet.
- Printing frequency, no. of pages printed
- The number of online bills produced per year
- Whether IT infrastructure is used at capacity or not
- Amount of energy consumed by servers
Two Sides’ position is that print and electronic media are complementary and should co-exist. It is not a question of paper or electronic, but rather which combination of the two has the least impact on the environment while meeting social and economic needs. Responsible environmental choices are based on factual and verifiable life cycle assessments of each alternative. Depending on the application, paper can be a better choice for economic/ environmental reasons (as noted by Arnfalk).
Print and paper have many unique environmental benefits that surface in a well done LCA, including renewability, recyclability and low carbon footprint in many cases. Paper also helps promote well managed working forests that are key to the US environment and economy. The answer to our environmental problems is not to replace highly recyclable and renewable products (from well managed forests) with ones that are not renewable, less recyclable and eliminate the need to manage forests. Our working forests rely on a sustainable forest products market. Without it, forest land will be sold and lost to malls, highways, agriculture…or server farms.
The bottom line is that most companies don’t do LCAs, or even consider the impacts of electronic communications prior to making negative claims about paper. They also typically don’t consider the fact that many people print at home or at work so that they have a record. In other words, the life cycle is often not paperless. In many cases, the use of paper has just been shifted downstream to the consumer. A study by NACHA – The Electronics Payment Association recently found that up to 40% of people who use e-billing also receive paper copies in the mail.
Furthermore, we are not asking companies to drop e-billing and go back to paper billing, as Mr. Godelnik suggests. E-billing has many benefits that I personally find useful. We are simply saying don’t paint paper as a bad product with more negative impacts than e-billing unless you have studied the matter carefully and have the backing of a credible third party. Companies should also stick to the basic rules of environmental marketing before they tout the environmental benefits of one product or service over another.
The ISO 14020 series of standards (esp. ISO 14021) are good documents that outline best practices for environmental claims and declarations. Other good resources on best practices for environmental marketing can be found on the Two Sides website under Resources / Reports and Studies. They include:
- US FTC Green Guides
- CSR Europe’s Sustainable Marketing Guide
- DEFRA’s Quick Guide to Making an Environmental Claim