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Resources Articles Print, Digital, or Both?

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Are you prepared to fight for the future of print media, digital media or both?

Sustainability, energy security and climate change are challenging issues that are compelling every business, every government and every individual to rethink the ways in which they employ energy, source materials, manage waste and to redefine what it means to be “greener.”

As printing sales continue their record breaking declines, it's a natural inclination to want to fight back against claims that print is a "dead medium" that "kills trees" and that somehow going paperless is "automagically" doing your part to save the planet.

Printing industry and forestry professionals maintain that sustainably harvested timber used for papermaking is not contributing to deforestation, but they have done a terrible job of influencing public perception in their favor. On the other hand, proponents of digital media as well as a number of strident environmental groups have done an effective job of depicting print media as a major cause of deforestation, despite the fact that hamburgers, condominiums and mountaintop coal removal cause significantly more deforestation than print media.

However, this isn't a time to fight back with underfunded and ill conceived campaigns based on zero-sum arguments. Trying to pick a "pixels vs. paper" fight is a no-win proposition. Business, government and society cannot afford to become dependent upon a digital media mono-culture any more than it can afford to be solely dependent on fossil fuel energy. This is not a time for the print media pot to call the digital media kettle black. The fact is that neither print nor digital media supply chains are sustainable as currently configured. This is a time to call for transparency and truth in advertising. We need media that is greener, not media that just says it's greener.

If you want to level the playing field and keep the players honest, next time you see an ad claiming that going paperless "saves trees," ask the advertiser to provide you with the GPS coordinates for the trees they claim to have saved or planted… and be prepared to do the same should you make such a claim. If they can't provide you with proof that their claim can be verified, you might like to write a letter to the FTC asking them to enforce the green marketing guidelines that require environmental marketing claims to be substantiated.

Over the next five to ten years, we need to transition from making paper in outmoded paper mills built by our grandparents to producing paper as well as renewable energy fuels, chemicals and pharmaceutical feedstocks in a new generation of integrated biorefineries. Likewise, we need to transition from printing methods that employ wasteful and inefficient mass production to those which employ leaner, greener digital printing and printed electronics manufacturing that support mass customization and dematerialization.

US printers should be demanding to see a new range of sustainable and “media agile” print solutions at by the time drupa 2012 rolls around. Solutions that will help them transform the flows of information, energy, materials and labor required to meet changing customer requirements, increased competition and growing regulatory pressures. ((I'd also like to see an augmented reality/mapping application that let you see the trees harvested or planted or conserved by print & digital media.))

The paper and printing industries need to think twice before embarking on negative campaigns based on "pithy petards" and self-righteous "we win-you lose" zingers. "Fighting Back" with zippy put-downs may feel good for a while, but as the Scandinavians say, so does “peeing in your pants to keep warm.” Well funded pro-coal organizations like the West Virginia Coal Association proudly state that a lump of coal is burned every time a book is ordered on-line!

A recent call to verbal arms was voiced by Kevin Kean President & CEO of IAPHC, The Graphic Professionals Resource, in a post on WhatTheyThink.com's "A Printing Office" blog, in which he said "The best line of Print 09 was by Dr. Joe Webb at the first Xerox luncheon on September 11. when he said 'We have a coal-fired Internet.' Meaning, we should not forget that all those who tout paperless billing via a the Internet or downloading e-books to their Amazon Kindle reader via the Internet are still using one of millions of computer nodes on a worldwide network which is run off of electricity and which by definition leaves a carbon imprint of a considerably sulfurous sort… Everyone in the industry needs to do better in a fact-based manner with the occasional pithy petard like Dr. Joe’s coal-fired Internet observation."

In fact, the "coal fired internet meme" was first advanced in 1999 by Mark Mills in a report for The Greening Earth Society titled "The Internet Begins with Coal" which claimed that for every 2 Megabytes of data moving on the Internet, the energy from a pound of coal is needed to create the necessary kilowatt-hours. It briefly made headlines at the time, but was rapidly criticized and marginalized: http://enews.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/net-energy-studies.html There is too much at stake to repeat the errors made by Mills and The Greening Earth Society in efforts to confront king coal head on.

The challenge that the printing industry faces is not "fighting back." Rather, its challenge is to fight for a future for print and digital media becoming radically cleaner, greener and more socially responsible within a decade. The printing industry needs to find common issues and synergies with the proponents of digital media and coal-based energy that we can fight for together. Consumers are too much in love with digital media and too dependent on coal to cast them aside and kick them to the gutter.

The coal industry alone spends over $80 Million per year on lobbying and receives and estimated $9 Billion in subsidies annually. Besides, print media supply chains are in not in a position to claim anything more than marginal advantage in terms of their sustainability, and supporters of digital media and coal are more than capable of emitting a fog of competing claims about the billions being invested in green IT and clean coal. Plus the printing and papermaking industries have neither the resources nor the collective will to go "tit for tat" in a war of words and images with the digital media, IT and coal industries.

In my role as Director of the Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC) Sustainable Advertising Partnership I am working with the leadership of the Ad-ID joint venture of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and The Association of National Advertisers as well as with global brand leaders, companies in their media supply chains, academic research leaders and other stakeholders to identify, quantify and ultimately reduce the carbon footprint of all media. The challenges of sustainability and climate change call for systems thinking as well as swift collaboration to make print and digital media supply chains radically more eco-effective within a decade. Please contact us if you are interested in finding common ground upon which we can forge a sustainable future for both print and digital media supply chains.