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The Carbon Footprint of Email vs Postal Mail

Reducing your carbon footprint should be a high priority for any business, but what about email and regular mail – how do you tackle that?

At eCo2 Greetings, we have been proud to stress that sending corporate ecards with ourselves is much greener than posting cards to your clients at Christmas time, not least because we plant 10 trees of course.

However, we have taken it upon ourselves to look into the carbon impact of sending an email versus that of a postal letter. The difference is substantial and is exactly why we will continue to bang our eco drum. You see our results in the infographic below, but we’re here to talk about much more than that.

Read on to find out the carbon footprint of email and regular mail, plus how to reduce the environmental impact of your emails and digital communication…

What is a carbon footprint?

Typically, a carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions directly or indirectly caused by an individual, event, product or organization, such as your business.

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This can include anything that causes the burning of fossil fuels, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. Examples would be driving to work, energy to power or heat your business – where it comes from – and waste disposal.

What is the carbon footprint of regular mail?

Obviously, regular mail can be anything from a letter or card to a parcel – this can cause the carbon footprint to vary.

As you can see from our infographic, up to 29g of CO2 can be emitted from the process of posting a standard letter. Remember, this includes an indirect and direct impact. The indirect impact is everything you don’t see – transport and sorting of postage.

Read more: How can businesses improve their carbon footprint

You can imagine the environmental impact for the regular post based on this number when up to 90% of mail is business-related. Contracts, invoices, letters, cards, and other documents – you can imagine the carbon footprint of all of this. Even more so if there are large packages involved for products and new stock. This figure will certainly jump at Christmas.

The majority of business waste is composed of paper, so reducing the amount of paper you use at your company is an easy place to start. This will include any and all direct mail you receive. Going for a paperless office is an easy step to make to reduce your carbon footprint.

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Technology has made it easy to store documents – even with e-versions or scanned documents – so there’s no need to be keeping paper records. Email is the simplest step. There aren’t many businesses that don’t use this technology over regular mail, and it’s not difficult to replace your other paper processes.

What is the environmental impact of an email?

Like direct mail, the carbon footprint of an email depends on the size of the message – how many and how large are the attachments?

A normal email, one without an attachment, has a carbon footprint of 4g of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). This figure relates to the power that data centres and your computers spend sending, filtering and reading your messages.

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Every email processed uses electricity. Adding just a small attachment can dramatically increase the carbon footprint of your emails – 19g CO2e. An email with large or multiple attachments, like images, can have a carbon footprint of up to 50g CO2e. So, as you can see, dropping those bulky attachments can make a big difference.

Just think about the number of emails you send or receive in a day, particularly at work, and it all starts to add up. It’s possible that a typical year of incoming mail adds 136kg of emissions to your carbon footprint. That’s the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a car.

Read more: Best Ways for Businesses to Communicate with Customers

The question of a digital activity’s energy use may depend in part on the company you’re using. Companies such as Apple and Google have all committed to using clean sources of energy for their data centres. Therefore, it may be best looking into your service provider’s source of energy as it affects your carbon footprint, indirectly.

Digital Pollution

Email, unfortunately, contributes to an unknown form of pollution – digital pollution, the impact of the internet or digital world on ecology.

We may think the internet and our digital platforms are part dematerialisation. However, this is far from being the case, the internet is based upon a physical infrastructure. In fact, there is an entire network of cables, data centres and servers that are the foundation of the functioning of the internet.

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A recent study by the energy company OVO found that the UK sends more than 64 million unnecessary emails every day. Furthermore, if we sent one fewer “thank you” email a day, it would save more than 16,433 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. That figure is the equivalent to taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road. The total impact is up to 23,475 tonnes of CO2 a year.

When you press ‘send’, your email goes through the network, and it takes electricity to run the network. The email will then end up being stored on the cloud somewhere in a data centre, and those data centres use a lot of electricity. The processes needed for the network and data centres require immense cooling – water and air conditioning – too. We don’t know because we can’t see it.

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Here are a few tips to keep your email inbox clean and eco-friendly:

  • Trash: Empty your Junk email folder regularly.
  • Unsubscribe: De-clutter your inbox. Reassess which emails you are subscribed to and ask if you really need or enjoy receiving them. If most of them go unopened, it might be time to unsubscribe from some of them.
  • Turn off notifications: Notification emails from social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can be deactivated unless you really need them. Most are duplicate information from the network’s website or app.
  • Reconsider CC’ing: Each time you CC a colleague, you’re adding to their list of unread emails. This also starts a new energy trail. So, streamline the number of people copied in your emails to save colleagues from an unnecessary email and its carbon footprint.
  • Shrink attachments: As we’ve said, what is in your emails affects its carbon footprint. Compress email attachments and adopt lighter file formats or just replace the attachments with a hyperlink to use less energy.
  • Renewable energy provider: At the root of digital pollution is the energy that powers your inbox screen. So, the biggest step you can take to limit your digital footprint is to choose a renewable energy supplier.

Check out the environmental impact of your communications – An infographic by the team at eCO2 Greetings below:

Learn more about festive eCards with eCo2 Greetings and how to reduce your environmental impact.

Learn more about what you can do to protect the environment and reduce your carbon footprint with our eCo2 Greetings blog.

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