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Carbon Footprint Stats: Direct Mail vs. Email

Date: August, 2014 -- today’s environmentally conscientious society you’d be hard pressed to find a marketer who has not at some point asked him or herself questions about the carbon footprint of her commercial messaging. Moreover, it’s hard to miss the headlines from those industry pundits still fighting the direct mail vs. email battle that take the environmental angle to argue against one medium or the other. The one thing seemingly always absent from this debate: Cold hard facts and figures. We thought it was time to change that…

The first step in determining whether direct mail or email is truly the greener medium was to set about seeing what is known on this subject. Is there a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer?

In Short, No.

The question turns out to be more complex than we could possibly have imagined. And there is no easy answer.  

On the email side of the equation, the difficulty lies in the fact that energy is expended and CO2 generated, because let’s face it those server farms aren’t powered by wind turbines, in developing, sending, managing, receiving, reading, forwarding and storing a message, whatever form it takes. This means the carbon footprint of identical messages can be very different. And the carbon footprint of identical messages in different media can be identical! Thus we face the chilling qualifier – “as a general rule” – throughout this article. 

“Valid” Email Has Bigger Feet

Surprisingly, a true spam email has a smaller footprint than a ‘valid’, opted-in or otherwise compliant message (such as the one that may have led you to this article), which is 0.3 grams of CO2 versus 4.0 grams for a ‘valid’ email. (Source: How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee) As you can imagine, the reason for the difference is a logical one given that it is due entirely to how the recipient’s system, and the recipient him or herself, handles and reacts to one type of email versus the other. A spam message trapped or blocked outright by either your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or your mail provider’s spam filter has a footprint of about 0.3 grams. One from a company or friend which you choose to open and read starts at 4.0 grams given the additional actions taken to open, click, FW, reply, etc.

Let’s now add another variable to the equation. If that ‘valid’ email message has an attachment, the cost goes up even further. An email with a memo attachment of a even couple of pages weighing 1 MB would top out at approximately 19g. However, and this is what makes comparisons tricky, if that email and the attachment are opened and then variously forwarded, filed or deleted, the footprint for that one email could top out at as high as 50g! 

In short, the more ancillary actions we take with the email - read, save, forward, recall, sort, archive, re-read, etc., the more carbon we create. That energy expenditure adds up, while the simple “delete” or “auto-delete” for an unwanted message which is annihilated is closer to the 0.3 gram weight.

Estimating Your Email Carbon Footprint

Thus, the total carbon footprint of a message or campaign amounts to the sum total of an accumulation of small footprints, taking into account attachments and/or other medium in your email, such as imbedded video or other media, and what is done with them. Every email and its treatment is unique, making almost any number a bit of a guess. For example, in the course of a year a typical business user would create a footprint in dealing with incoming email of about 135 kg. This includes the transmission to that person, the filtering carried out by the domain server and the company IT system, and the recipient’s reading, forwarding and storing. That’s close to the footprint created by driving a car 200 miles.

Most Email is SPAM

Surprisingly, according to McAfee, 78% of the emails we receive are likely to be spam messages.  While this sounds too large, it’s actually pretty close.  Check your “unwanted” folder. Those still cost 0.3g. And of course there are the ones that avoid the spam trap and which you open and then delete, which in itself is a carbon-creating manipulation, although the footprint will not be as large as the footprint you create reading, storing and replying to the email from your tennis partner.

The Final Tally

So, assuming that in a day you get 118 emails without attachments and 13 with attachments, and 720 spams, your carbon footprint would enable you to drive your car 2.72 miles. Add in the 14 you sent, one with an attachment, your carbon footprint for the day is 1,569 grams, or 2.97 miles of driving.  

What About Direct Mail?

And what about a direct mail piece? The University of Belgrano in Argentina was asked by the Argentine Mail Companies Association (AECA) to study this same subject. They concluded that the footprint of the production of 4 pages of paper and an envelope for a letter is 25 grams of carbon. Assuming the use of the Post for collection and delivery to an address in a city 400 kilometers away, and accounting for CO2 generation for collection, dispatch, carriage to address location, reception, distribution to addressee and reading, the footprint is increased by 3.37 grams, for a total of 28.7 grams.

So your 4 page direct mail promotion piece generates a 28.37 grams of C02, against 19 grams for the email. But, if someone takes additional action, such as printing out the email attachment of 4 pages, the “email footprint” can quickly jump to 44 grams. Let’s also keep in mind that marketers in general are sending email today at a much higher rate with much higher volumes per campaign than they’re doing in direct mail and this too need be taken into account.

Another point of note is that there is no carbon cost with the management of a physical letter as there is with email promotions. The print promotion piece or catalog can be passed around the dinner table with no carbon cost. On the other hand, as we’ve shown, an email cannot be shared carbon free.

It is worth it to test it!

Now the fun part starts. You can do a rough calculation for each campaign. 19 grams per email. 28.37 grams per letter. You can easily calculate the carbon cost per response, and the cost of opens for the emails. We suspect your carbon footprint per response with mail will begin to look pretty good. And recall that we’re talking a four page letter! That’s a lot of space to build that relationship with. If you only need the equivalent of two pages, you start out practically even with email.

Whatever that “CFPR” (Carbon Footprint per Response), Data Services, Inc. will be there to ensure the data, postal addresses, and email addresses you have to work with are as current and correct as possible. We don’t want to waste whatever our carbon footprint will be by sending undeliverable messages in any form.