Within the graphic arts community, the term greenwashing (using unsubstantiated, nonscientific environmental claims—often not true—to promote a product or service) can cause an avalanche of righteous indignation. And for good reason: there is growing conventional wisdom that if you...
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Within the graphic arts community, the term greenwashing (using unsubstantiated, nonscientific environmental claims—often not true—to promote a product or service) can cause an avalanche of righteous indignation.
And for good reason: there is growing conventional wisdom that if you distribute something digitally, it is more environmentally friendly than distributing it on paper. From for-profit corporations to non-profits, to competing digital alternatives, print is being used as a foil to advance a paperless transformation, says Don Carli, senior research fellow with The Institute for Sustainable Communication, a nonprofit which looks to bring awareness and action to the sustainable use of print and digital media.
However, like pretty much every issue encountered in life as an adult, the issue is far from black and white.
Here’s the situation, in a nutshell: On the one hand, we have the companies and organizations that stand to benefit, from a financial perspective, from a transformation to a paperless workflow. These include Internet-based companies that want consumers to use their services (more about that later) to utilities, banks, etc., that would much rather not spend the money required to mail a bill or letter to their customers.
On the other, we have the graphic arts companies—the printers, paper mills, and software and hardware vendors that benefit from the ongoing use of paper products to deliver messages to consumers.
In the murky middle is the actual environmental impact that occurs to produce an email message vs. a paper bill, for example. It is here where greenwashing’s greatest sin(s) can be found; without scientific-based information and a real understanding of the products or services life cycle, no one benefits.
According to Carli, Phil Riebel, president and COO of Two Sides U.S., Inc., and others involved in the discussion, digital technologies and paper each have an impact on the environment. Different impacts, but each can be potentially as bad (or good) as the other, depending on how the individual companies, as well as industries as a whole, respond to that impact.
“In large part we don’t readily understand the life cycle of the products and services that we are talking about,” says Carli.
Google Goes for the Jugular
Take for example, Google’s January launch of its “Go Paperless in 2013,” campaign, a major initiative executed with multiple Internet service partners to highlight the “benefits of going paperless.”
Google’s use of pictures of trees and U.S. recycling data in its promotional material is a good example of greenwashing, used primarily to promote its service, without substantial data, says Riebel. Two Sides, for the record, is an organization created to promote paper and printing’s side in the environmental argument.
Furthermore, says Riebel, all of Google’s co-partners in the campaign have a major financial stake in consumers’ abandoning print and paper to use their technology: HelloFax, an online fax service; HelloSign, an e-signature service; Expensify, an online expense reporting service; Xerox, an online business accounting service; and Fujitsu, the ScanSnap scanner manufacturer.
In a letter to Google board chairman Eric Schmidt, Riebel highlights the search engine’s own impact on the environment, such as “100 searches on Google is equivalent to burning a 60 watt light bulb for 20 minutes, using 0.03Kwh electricity and 20 gms of carbon dioxide.”
Two Sides’ letter to Google did result in some wording change, but the fight continues. Meanwhile, Verdigris, the environmental awareness initiative, is urging the paper and printing industry to “Go Google-less.”
Even as those in the digital arena are being called out for their unsubstantiated claims, printers, too, should also be aware that their environmental claims need science behind them. “The sword cuts both ways,” says Carli.