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Guy Hanson, VP Customer Engagement at Validity looks at the environmental impact of email.

With 2021 marking 50 years of email, it is difficult to comprehend how such a familiar and widely used platform can impact the environment. However, with COP26 in full force, it has never been more important to recognise the environmental impact of sending and receiving emails. For example, internet service providers (ISPs) operate massive server farms, telecom operators use specialised carrier equipment, and the devices we use for email are active 24 hours a day. Accounting for these factors makes it easier to understand email’s impact.  

Reducing email’s carbon footprint

A standard email without an attachment has a carbon footprint of 4gm of CO2e. Every email processed uses electricity, and if a small attachment is added, it can dramatically increase the carbon footprint of an email to 19gm CO2e.

To address change, the starting point is to raise awareness. Sending fewer emails is only part of the solution, and the overall infrastructure will exist whether or not emails are sent. This means every link in the chain has a responsibility to reduce email’s carbon footprint.

Carbon neutral server farms and broadcasting infrastructure will also help move the needle. Many technology organisations are now basing their processing in Nordic countries such as Iceland, where cooling requirements are much lower due to naturally lower temperatures.

Most email service providers (ESPs) operate cost per thousand-based pricing, becoming cheaper as volume increases, incentivising more emails regardless of their quality. A shift towards performance-based pricing, where effectiveness is rewarded, would reduce the overall volumes.

Email marketers should focus on the quality of their messages by making greater use of triggered emails, where the average revenue is higher due to greater relevance in terms of timing and buyer intention. Improved targeting will deliver improved effectiveness and reduce irrelevant communications.  

Global spam levels are the biggest issue currently. In 2020, there was a high increase in spam emails, reaching more than 47 per cent – which translates to nearly half of all unsolicited email messages being unsolicited email messages. Although the other factors have a role to play, spam is the elephant in the room, meaning tougher legislation, bigger fines, and collaborative cross-border enforcement is required to bring levels down.

Consumers taking control

There are an estimated four billion email users in the world, and approximately 306 billion messages are sent every day. Encouraging consumers to unsubscribe from mailing lists, and use preference centres, to reduce the number of emails they receive, will mean lower volumes and higher relevance.

With personal emails, think about whether each email is necessary. Research shows if each UK adult sent one less ‘LOL’ or ‘thank you’ email a day, they’ll save over 16,400 tonnes of carbon per year –equivalent to more than 81,000 flights to Madrid or taking 2,224 diesel cars off the road.

Raising awareness around these points is crucial, as many people are unaware email even has a carbon footprint, just as they don’t consider the environmental impact of leaving household devices on standby. There is no single quick fix – there are many small incremental gains to be achieved, and many different parties have roles to play.

Reduce emissions from postal deliveries

While acknowledging email’s carbon footprint is important, it also serves a valuable function replacing other more carbon-intensive channels. Sending a letter creates an average carbon footprint of 140 grams, and while organisations like banks encourage customers to switch off paper statements, there is still plenty of inertia. Framing this request as a social responsibility ask may increase uptake. The same goes for event and travel tickets, as technology means there is almost always no reason to have a physical version. Consumers should be educated about the environmental impact of their choices, but the onus is on these companies to implement and promote these digital-first strategies.

As organisations around the world strive to be eco-friendly, it is important they understand that even sending emails creates a carbon footprint. Behind every email is an energy-consuming ecosystem that brands should consider as they effectively manage their email campaigns to be environmentally friendly.

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