Why the advertising industry needs educating in how to calculate carbon pollution contribution

The August 11th article in Mumbrella- Disingenuous’ Coles slammed by industry body after ceasing catalogue delivery covered the response from The Real Media Collective (TRMC) to the announcement by Coles of their plans to terminate printed catalogue distribution in favour of digital formats and printed copies at point of sale. It was a prime example of why the industry needs education in calculating carbon pollution contribution. But more importantly, why we need to be hyper-vigilant around greenwashing.

The comment thread was even more enlightening for the general lack of knowledge and understanding of the prescribed methodology for calculating carbon pollution contribution and the ways it can and should be presented.

TRMC CEO Kellie Northwood was reported as stating, “For every Coles customer spending 60 seconds browsing a digital catalogue, they will emit 12g of CO2 compared to looking at a printed catalogue for a day and only emitting 0.5g of CO2 [according to Climate Care].”

So, we have the classic stand-off between the two parties. Both have a vested interest in having their version winning the PR battle. Coles want to be seen as environmentally aware. Then the TRMC counter with a hypothetical comparison figure to ‘prove’ that printing is in fact a better method of communication when measuring carbon. When it comes to environmental claims and the potential for greenwashing and misleading statements, TrinityP3 wil always try to get to the truth based on and proven by empirical research.

To mediate in this dispute, we need to make some assumptions and draw some potential boundaries better to answer what we believe to be the question: ‘is printing or online better for the environment?’. It is important that we are comparing like with like.

In each of these processes, there are a number of stages for consideration: design and file creation, printing (for the print version only), storage, distribution and disposal.

First, design and file creation. The same amount of carbon is produced in the production or creation of the file for both printing and online.

Second, for the printed version only, there is then printing.

The figure of 0.5g of CO2 per catalogue could be accurate but it would depend on the number of pages. We used the industry-leading CO2counter to check this figure. We called it 12-page A4. We get at least double the emissions quoted by the TRMC. But it is important to note that the CO2counter methodology does include disposal of the catalogue once it has been read for the day, so this is likely to contribute to some of the difference.

The third is storage. This is either storage in warehousing in the case of the printed catalogue or storage on a server in the case of the electronic file. The assumption is that the printed version is only stored briefly, as it will need to get into letterboxes in a hurry, while the on-line file could be around for a long time. So we can assume that the online channel has a higher carbon emission footprint for storage.

Next is distribution. This is an important one. Not just in terms of the method of distribution but efficiency. Distribution of the printed catalogue by transport using fossil fuel modes such as diesel or petroleum is calculated by weight, mode of transport and distance. Therefore, the distance and weight of the printed catalogues from the print plant to the distribution centres to the points of local delivery must be factored in.

Likewise, a file sitting on a server, distributed by email, mobile phone app or HTML webpage also has distribution carbon costs. What is true, in TRMC’s defence, is that ‘consuming’ the same catalogue on-line does have a high carbon footprint. The electricity that the servers, network and the viewing devices consume needs to be calculated and factored into the overall carbon pollution contribution too.

It also does not go away after a day, as that file will remain on an energy-hungry server for potentially years. This is counterintuitive and quite complex. If you want to go into this more deeply, have a look at the research we conducted back at the end of 2017 about the environmental impact of Facebook (or any online) advertising.

But more important is the efficiency of that distribution. This is a question of waste. How targeted is each of the modes of distribution? In the case of the mass letterbox drop, how many of those catalogues become instant landfill or sent immediately for recycling? Likewise, is the electronic version distributed in the same mass, un-targeted way? Or is the electronic version based on opt-in through email, app and website visitations?

Looking at the ‘junk’ litter spilling from many letterboxes around the suburbs, it is clear that mass, un-targeted distribution is incredibly, visibly wasteful. If half the printed catalogues are discarded, then that effectively doubles the carbon pollution of this mode. But if the electronic distribution is based on opt-in, this reduces waste.

Besides, the fact that Coles has run both printed and electronic catalogues side-by-side for several years means they will have a very good view of the efficacy of each stream. Dropping one of them will therefore save time and contribute to lowering carbon pollution. No amount of calculating carbon pollution contribution required.

This article first appeared in Mumbrella on August 14, 2020

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