Green report: Downloading music isn't always best

Factor in end-user preference and behavior, and digital downloads aren't always eco-friendliest

Back in the 1984, singer Madonna declared (musically), "We are living in a material world." She was right on a couple of counts: During that decade, there was an increased desire to own as much stuff as possible. Moreover, that stuff tended to be of the physical variety. Your music and software inevitably came recorded on plastic or metal, boxed in cardboard. Literature, news, letters, and interoffice memos were almost exclusively printed in ink on paper and often delivered via some form of fuel-consuming vehicle. Having a face-to-face chat with a CEO, client, or grandparent living on the opposite end of the country entailed being physically transported via airplane, train, Greyhound, or whatever your budget afforded.

The world has changed since then. Stacks of CDs, books, newspapers, business reports, and the like, previously transported via airplanes and trucks, have been replaced with megabytes of electronic files transported via the Internet. More meetings are held virtually via Web conferencing or teleconferencing. Instead of transporting atoms, we're transporting bits. Thanks to technology, we are living in an increasingly immaterial world. That trend represents opportunities for businesses and customers alike to save money and to be better environmental stewards. However, when you dig a little deeper, you'll find that digital delivery isn't always better than physical delivery.

[ Learn more about tech's looming battle with rising energy costs | Check out these 25 facts you should know about green IT. ]

A report released this week titled "The Energy and Climate Change Impacts of Different Music Delivery Methods" [PDF] illuminates the environmental benefits and potential drawbacks of dematerialization, an economic term that basically means "using fewer materials to achieve the same economic outcome." In the report, the authors compare the environmental impact of six music-delivery scenarios, ranging from driving to the store and purchasing a music CD to downloading a digital album and not burning it to CD. (The authors are Jonathan G. Koomey, visiting professor at Yale University; Christopher L. Weber, research assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University; and H. Scott Matthews, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon.)

Cutting right to the chase, the authors conclude:

...despite the increased energy and emissions associated with Internet data flows, purchasing music digitally reduces the energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with delivering music to customers by between 40 and 80 percent from the best-case physical CD delivery, depending on whether a customer then burns the files to CD or not. This reduction is due to the elimination of CDs, CD packaging, and the physical delivery of CDs to the household. Based on our assumptions, online delivery is clearly superior from an energy and CO2 perspective when compared to traditional CD distribution.

And there we have it: Dematerialization presents a win-win scenario for the music industry. Replacing physical CDs with digital downloads means a cleaner, greener, more efficient (and presumably less expensive) supply chain. The same can logically be said for magazines, newspapers, books, or anything else than can be transformed into a digital file and sent via Internet tubes.

But wait -- the dematerialization story is not entirely cut and dry when you factor in end-user behavior and preferences or if you overlook the fact that digital delivery comes at a measurable cost and associated environmental impact. The authors find, in some scenarios, the digital-download approach is more or less on par with purchasing physical music CDs.

For instance, the traditional retail-delivery scenario [of buying a CD at a retail store] is nearly equivalent to downloading and burning if the customer walks rather than drives to the retail store. Similarly, if the file transfer size is increased to 260 MB (from 60-100 MB) the download and burn option looks very similar to the e-commerce CD scenario due to increased Internet energy use for downloading.

Moreover, it's important to consider that an album downloaded and burned to CD isn't the same as an album bought from the store. The customer who downloads the album has to purchase blank CDs and go through the hassle of downloading and burning the music -- and said user doesn't have the pretty artwork, lyrics, and other printed materials that come with the store-bought CD. In other words, dematerialization simply for the sake of dematerialization can break what I consider to be one of the most important rules of green technology: Deliver the same service or better using fewer resources.

Now apply these realities to other green technologies. From a pure environmental perspective (as well as a raw economic perspective), electronic documents are better than printer documents in that the former don't require an investment in paper, ink, or printers. But in reality, an end-user may be able to accomplish more with a physical copy of a document, thanks to the ability to easily carry it around and scribble notes. Further, some people legitimately yield more information from reading a paper document in their hands than reading from a monitor. Similarly, there are instances where a CEO can accomplish more flying to another state to meet with employees or shareholders face to face, rather than interacting with them via conference call, videoconference, or even teleconference.

All in all, "The Energy and Climate Change Impacts of Different Music Delivery Methods" is an important report. It adds credibility to the argument that dematerialization can significantly reduce the environmental impact of certain business practices, while almost certainly reducing costs in the process. At the same time, the report serves as a reminder that end-users and customers alike still value the experience of physically interacting with CDs, printer materials, and other human beings. Sacrificing productivity or other business benefits for the sake of environmental stewardship doesn't always make sense, and before investing in any green technology, it's essential to weigh all of those factors.

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