Retail chains are increasingly opting out of printed brochures, citing reduced waste, a smaller environmental footprint, and increased sustainability. While this decision seems reasonable at first glance, the question remains: Is online marketing truly more eco-friendly than print advertising?

These questions lack definitive answers and present complexities. But upon closer examination, It is possible to provide multiple aspects of an answer.

Printing undoubtedly consumes resources—paper, energy, inks—and the transportation of printed products to readers also plays a role. This is often illustrated through a CO2 balance sheet or measured as a CO2 footprint.

Nevertheless, evidence supporting online media as less harmful to the environment is not definitive. Devices like smartphones, readers, and computers consume electricity during both production and operation. For instance, Google handles 3.8 million search queries per minute, with each query consuming roughly 0.3 watt-hours of electricity. This extrapolates to a six-watt LED lamp's energy consumption for an hour with 20 queries.

Hardware production, massive server farm data hosting, uploads, and downloads also consume energy and resources that aren't consistently sourced from "green electricity." Additionally, the recycling aspect remains unclear. How much energy and raw materials can be saved or recovered through recycling electronic devices? What percentage of electronic items undergo recycling?

Paper is hard to beat when it comes to recycling

Concrete facts exist about paper: It stands as a renewable raw material sourced sustainably through FSC-certified methods in European forestry. Paper demonstrates exceptional compatibility within a circular economy: the waste paper recycling rate in relation to total paper consumption is more than 95% in Germany, and has remained stable at just over 70% in Europe as a whole for around ten years.(1) Additionally, the utilization of waste paper contributes positively to the CO2 balance of paper.

In contrast, facts about electronic media are much less concrete. Per Greenpeace, global consumption of electronic hardware doubled from 2000 to 2015. Other sources(2) estimate that around 50 million tons of electronic waste are generated worldwide every year. Only a very small proportion of this is consistently recycled; in the EU, the recycling rate is just under 40%. (3) This trend is accelerating: more and more digital devices are consuming more and more data volume, and therefore energy and resources.

Recyclability

Which is better: snail mail or e-mail?

The comparison between mailing and emailing seems straightforward at first glance. Emails, being virtual, appear to have minimal environmental impact. However, data traffic requires energy and resources too. An email generates an average of around 10 grams of CO2 emissions, while a standard letter (including production, printing, and dispatch) emits around 20 grams.(4) A points victory for e-mail! Really?

Mailing lists frequently remain bloated and seldom undergo cleansing to remove "unsubscribers." Moreover, individuals potentially interested in the email content are frequently included in the "cc" field. While this incurs no postage, it consumes energy. Consequently, the CO2 advantage of sending emails diminishes swiftly if distribution lists expand limitlessly or emails lack targeting. While modernization is valued, consciously prioritizing quality over quantity in email distribution does not harm the environment.

Deutsche Post has published a study on the mail order business together with a marketing institute(5) . It compares the success of print mailings with that of e-mailings. The result: to generate the same number of orders, you can send 200 e-mails, which, according to the calculation previously made, cause around 2,000 grams of CO2, or 15 advertising letters, which then emit a total of just 600 grams. So in this case, a clear point for the print product. It is also important, regardless of the sustainability aspect, that brochures, for example, continue to be used intensively as an advertising medium despite the growing digital competition, with a slight upward trend: print works!

A study by Deutsche Post and a marketing institute compared print mailings with emailings (5). To generate an equivalent number of orders, 200 emails (causing around 2,000 grams of CO2) or 15 advertising letters (emitting a total of just 600 grams) are needed. Here, the print product emerges as the environmentally friendlier option. Additionally, irrespective of sustainability concerns, brochures persist as an effective advertising medium amidst increasing digital competition, showing a slight upward trend: print remains effective!

Conversion rates

The final answer? "It depends"

Other research institutes have also concluded that printed media don't inherently possess a worse environmental impact compared to their digital counterparts. The argument stands that a print medium consumes resources and energy during production only once but can be utilized multiple times. The determination relies on the specific application, actual use, materials, transportation routes, and other contributing factors. The repeated use of digital media demands energy each time data is accessed. Nonetheless, it's crucial to note that there are no fixed rules, and print can be a sustainable aspect of communication, standing on equal ground with online communication.

Energy efficiency

Print production steadily improves its energy efficiency

The printing industry is continually advancing, with both machine manufacturers and print shops prioritizing sustainability. Decreased energy consumption not only fosters an improved environmental equilibrium but also lowers operational expenses.

"Sustainability and energy efficiency are now decisive competitive and cost factors for suppliers in the print media industry - this applies equally to our customers and to HEIDELBERG as a company," says Dr. Ludwin Monz, CEO at HEIDELBERG. Innovations are increasingly directed towards curbing Scope 3 emissions, a significant lever in reducing the overall CO2 footprint of HEIDELBERG.

To take just one example: the comparison between a Speedmaster CD 102-6+L from 1990 and the current Speedmaster XL 106-6+L reveals a 40% reduction in energy consumption per 1,000 sheets, dropping from 13.8 kWh to 8 kWh due to ongoing innovations and system enhancements. HEIDELBERG aims for climate neutrality across its sites (Scope 1+2) by 2030, offsetting unavoidable emissions, and striving for complete climate neutrality (Scope 1+2) by 2040 without offsetting measures. The company's vision revolves around having the industry's smallest ecological footprint across the entire value chain.

(1) https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/bild/tab-papiererzeugung-papierverbrauch https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/168479/umfrage/recyclingquote-von-altpapier-in-europa-seit-1991/

(2) https://twosides.info/electronic-communication/

(3) https://de.statista.com/themen/8463/elektroschrott/#topicOverview

(4) international anerkannter Schätzwert, u.a. des Rats für Nachhaltige Entwicklung der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit

(5) https://www.collaborativemarketingclub.com/

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