Think of the environment before you forward this email

Direct marketing has made positive strives to adopt “green” processes. Digital marketing, on the other hand, increasingly looks like a carbon-intensive gas guzzler that cares little about its impact on the environment and even calls into question whether it has any responsibility.

With environmental performance becoming a core element of the Direct Marketing Association’s Code of Practice, any company that is a member has clear guidelines for what to do in physical media and lots of resources to help them do it. Starting with data hygiene through to production processes, the path towards sustainable direct mail, door drops and inserts is clear.

Virtual media may look at the code and assume it has nothing to do with them. After all, there appears to be no output as such. Only on the input side, around suppression and data hygiene, can email users make a difference. For most in this sector, the problems of getting enough opted-in records mean they shy away from reducing that number through cleansing and screening.

So what of any physical impact on the environment from digital marketing? As this is largely hidden or invisible, it is often thought not to exist. Right at the back end of the digital production chain, however, there is a strong focus on the environmental footprint. Data centres, where every online action gets processed and stored, are working hard to reduce their carbon output and European rules on how to do this have already been drawn up.

Email’s carbon footprint has been calculated – in 2009, McAfee commissioned ICF International to look at the environmental impact of spam. It calculated that a single spam message is responsible for 0.3g of carbon emissions. That is equivalent to driving a car one metre.

The difference between a legitimate marketing message and spam? In emissions terms, nothing at all. Both pass through the same production and distribution chain. Spam tends to multiply and sit on more servers than standard messages, which might broaden its footprint to a degree.

But if email marketers are not using suppression files to check whether their targets are still alive or may have moved (and physically changing address is likely to result in a change of email address), then even permissioned service messages sent to customers are nothing better than spam.

And the emissions they cause could be said to have less justification. Since spammers don’t care about the law, they are unlikely to care about the planet either. Respectable brands need to demonstrate they care about both.

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