Digital’s hidden environmental impact

By Vicky Grant

5 minute Read


  • Insight

“If there’s no strategy for a systemic shift, it is just greenwashing” – John Sauven, executive director at Greenpeace.

We’re constantly bombarded with messages about cutting back the use of paper to ‘save the trees’, but is it really going green? A survey by Two Sides found that 64% of UK consumers agree that claims about switching to digital for the environment are made because the business wants to save money, and they’re not entirely wrong. In an interview with Printweek Two Sides, managing director Jonathon Tame said that of the 388 organisations using greenwashing messages, in most cases the business hadn’t done much research because they believed it to be correct. So why do we incorrectly assume that print kills trees while digital goes green? Here are the hidden environmental impacts that digital communications have.


The carbon footprint of email

We’ve talked a lot about the carbon footprint of mail, but we never seem to discuss the elusive carbon footprint of email. A recent article in The Page by Two Sides discussed the topic. They found that 72% of the UK are unaware of the carbon footprint associated with email. 49% regularly send unnecessary emails to those within talking distance every single day. But, did you know: we could reduce our collective carbon output by the equivalent taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road by sending just one less email per day? The carbon footprint of a single email isn’t huge, but the number of unnecessary emails adds up. So, don’t forget that your ‘thanks’ email is taking a lot of energy to send for what it says.

Source: OVO with Two Sides

Where the iclouds live on earth

Server farms. Way back in 2014 the Guardian wrote an expose on the potential environmental dangers of them. In 2017 the Guardian followed it with a piece on the ‘tsunami of data’ that would consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025. This was followed by another expose on the tech industry’s carbon footprint titled ‘Our phones and gadgets are now endangering the planet’ in 2018. It’s not new news, yet it’s something few people are aware of.

What are server farms? They are where all our internet actions take place. Every Google search, every YouTube view and every Tweet requires data stored and shared. This doesn’t take place in the clouds as some people think, but on the ground, at a data centre. Since 2012 the number of data centres or ‘server farms’ has grown from 500,000 to over 8 million, and the growth in tech usage has turned their use of global electricity from being forecasted as one fifth by 2025 into 10% usage by 2030.

Source: Is our data destroying the environment?

Do you recycle your laptop?

Or your tablet, or phone? Have you brought them back to the store to recycle, thrown them away, or do you have a drawer somewhere in your house where all your old tech lives? E-waste is on the rise. Luckily, a lot of major producers like Apple have a recycle or trade in program to help prevent their trash from polluting the planet, so most e-waste doesn’t actually come from our personal devices. It’s estimated that 59% of global e-waste in 2020 will come from homeware appliances such as fridges, freezers, kettles, toasters and vacuum cleaners. Furthermore, only 41 countries internationally are tracking and sharing e-waste statistics.

As society aims to become more environmentally conscious, better tracking and solutions such as tech repair instead of replacement, will become more common place. Tech repair ensures that tech and its pollutant components don’t end up in a landfill. As more everyday items such as watches, kitchen appliances and even lightbulbs become internet connected, e-waste is projected to grow rapidly. This is one environmental impact of technology that we will have to monitor and adapt to in the future, and one of the best ways to help manage it is by repairing instead of replacing.

Source: BBC - Can we fix our growing e-waste problem?

So why don’t we know about it?

Clearly, digital technology leaves a heavy carbon footprint, so why don’t we know about it? Likely, the answer is simply because it is an easier solution for companies to cut out paper communications to ‘go green’ instead of cutting back on their digital communications. We’re constantly told that digital is ‘the future’, that to reach new customers we need to use digital communications. Not only is this untrue but how can we move towards ‘the future’ if by doing so we’re ensuring won’t have much of one?

Vicky Grant image

About the author

Vicky (CEO) Founded The Dragonfly Agency UK, in 2011 and Dragonfly Direct Marketing South Africa in 2017. She has over 20 years’ experience in direct marketing and international distribution. She has built both businesses based on strong relationships with clients and suppliers both in the UK and internationally. Her long-standing clients are testament to the hard work and dedication that she has instilled at Dragonfly. Always smiling, Vicky loves nothing more than seeing clients achieve positive results that are delivered efficiently and effectively.