Friday, April 22, 2011

April Observations: Print More E-mails – Save the Earth

Observations: Print More E-mails – Save the Earth
by Jim Lyons

When does printing e-mail help save the Earth? In honor of 2011 Earth Day, I thought this seemingly curious connection deserved some follow-up.
The idea for this column started with a tweet* that recently came to my attention, linking me to a Wall Street Journal editorial that opined on why, of all things, printing e-mails is good for the Earth. The article is titled, “Save a forest, print your emails,” and one of the authors of the op-ed piece is none other than Chuck Leavell, keyboardist with the Allman Brothers Band who is also now a tree farmer in his native Georgia and author of a recent book, Growing A Better America: Smart, Strong, Sustainable. Leavell’s WSJ column’s co-author is Carlton Owen, a forester and CEO of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.

The article’s major point is that printing e-mails is good for the environment, as the behavior takes advantage of a renewable resource (trees for paper), and by printing more, we help assure that those green spaces (tree farms) will remain part of our environment rather than going idle due to lack of demand and giving way to more urbanized activities. The authors were reacting to a recent tech “innovation,” a new file format from the World Wildlife Fund (WFF) announced in November 2010, which is essentially an unprintable form of PDF file. The authors’ argument is that the WFF format is a “step too far” from the “please consider the environment” messages adorning the bottom of many e-mails during the last few years.

The WWF format had escaped my attention until now, and from what I can gather, much of the conventional printer industry. (Lyra covered this development in an article on the 2011 PaperWorld/Remax that was published on the Journal Online Web site in February.) To me, the idea of an “unprintable” file or image actually seems to be a throw-back—remember those Web-browser windows from the past decade, which due to their Java nature were unprintable though not intentionally. Getting most Web content into a printable state has been a sign of progress, not just for the printer side but for the entire browser/printer/operating system ecosystem -—witness the progress in allowing mobile devices to print during just the last year or so.

With respect to those “please consider the environment” warnings on e-mails that began popping up a few years ago, I blogged about them back then (March 2008) in a post titled, “Please Consider the Environment.” As part of my research behind that blog, I “Googled” the entire phrase, “Please Consider the Environment before Printing this Email,” and came up with less than 1,000 hits. This month, a Google search yields nearly half-a-million hits on the same phrase (see screen shot below). I will leave it up to the search engine optimization (SEO) experts to explain the roughly 500-fold increase in the search results, but needless to say, a certain institutionalization of this phrase has taken hold.

As for as the actual demand for printing of e-mails, I believe that smartphones and devices like the iPad make “consuming” e-mails much more of an immediate virtual experience than a physical one these days. That said, I admit to printing an e-mail just in the last few days when attending a function at our local university and needing logistics information, including a parking code. Printing the e-mail just seemed to make more sense because I would have the piece of paper folded in my jacket pocket, ready to produce when needed rather than fumbling for my iPhone at the parking-lot entrance. Yes, there are still those times for printing e-mails, but this was a rather unusual exception.

As a college-level professor of marketing and economics these last few years, I cannot resist doing a little analysis on the strategy and logic in the WSJ piece, in spite of my great admiration for Leavell as a musician and an activist and as a fellow lover of green spaces and nature. From an economics standpoint, considering “supply and demand” theories, I am inclined think a few more steps are involved in the conversion of forests, human-cultivated or natural, into strip malls, however demand for printing of e-mails changes over the years. And from a marketing standpoint, conventional wisdom is that competitive comparisons in advertising or other promotional efforts (like op-ed columns) should be done with caution – as they run the risk of promoting not only the “the home team” but also the competition, and in the case of market leaders, the strategy is often to act as if there is no competition. I am a case in point – I could have gone along unaware of the WFF file format, but this promotional effort from the other side has actually made me curious about it.

That said, I am happy to know that we generally continue to have the choice to print and that the printing is fast, friendly, and not so bad for the environment after all.

Happy Earth Day!

*A note on my discovery of this piece -- I mentioned a tweet (a message on Twitter) and in this case it came to my attention as a re-tweet from no less than @NeenahPaper - one of the most active Twitter users in our industry, and well worth following.