On-line vs. printed media, which is more sustainable?

The study carried out by Alma Media, VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden aimed to compare the life cycle environmental impacts of print and online media. It serves as a good example of how difficult it is to determine what is truly sustainable. Where to draw the line and what to include in the LCA? Comparing the impacts is difficult and results differ depending on what is included or excluded in the study. Here also the environmental impact of editorial work was incorporated in the analysis and carbon prints were counted for the studied newspapers and their online-versions.

  It was found that the most significant environmental effects for printed media come from the production of newsprint, which is energy-consuming.  However, the actual reading causes no environmental effects whereas for online media it is the reading stage where the impacts are high.  The material and energy properties of the devices used for reading, the production method of the electricity needed and the browsing-time and number of downloads all add up. According to the study, when comparing the carbon footprint per one reader and one hour, the media are in the same range: both cause environmental effects comparable to those caused by driving a car for a little over one kilometer.

However, it should be taken into consideration that at the moment print and online media tend not to be substitutes but are often used in complementary fashion, which is reflected in the statics. Also, the reading time of print has no environmental effects whereas with online-media it the most important factor. As a result the units of measurement chosen for the study have strong effects on which type of media is seen as more ecological.  Maybe the carbon footprint per reading hour is not the most revealing measurement. But how to make two different medias comparable?

There seems to be no clear-cut answers, not even for something that seems quite simple at the breakfast table.


1 comment
  1. annasofiah said:

    There are so many posts I could comment on, but let’s start with this one… This post deals with something similar that I talked about with someone who works at Itella (a firm facilitating companies and corporations with information and material flow management, e.g. invoice processing services). Eletronic invoicing is said to be the effective combination of technology and ecology, but the person I discussed with said that actually an old-school paper invoice is as sustainable as an e-invoice because of the IT infrastructure needed for the e-invoicing. Not only the devices used that Sarri mentioned but much more importantly the huge servers and data centres needed are the one making e-invoicing less ecological than generally thought.

    This brings us again back to the IPAT equation… Can technology really save us? If more “ecological” solutions like e-invoicing require data centres of which energy consumption can be measured in megawatts and the emissions of the electricity generation needed are on the same level with steel or airline industries (McKinsey & Co., 2008), are they that green after all? Luckily this isn’t the whole truth: it is estimated that ICT saves more than 5 times its carbon footprint in the rest of the economy by enabling efficiency (The Climate Group, 2008). As so often, this matter of sustainability is also rather complex and with no simple answer… So no clear-cut answers found here either.

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