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.