Can IT reduce the environmental impact of business?

June 16, 2003

Brussels, 13 Jun 2003

Under certain circumstances, downloading music from the Internet can have less of an impact on the environment than buying a pre-recorded CD, a recent report has claimed.

The 'Virtual dematerialisation - ebusiness and factor X' report is part of Digital Europe, a research project funded under the Information Society Technologies (IST) programme of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5). With the participation of research institutions and regional partners from Germany, Italy and the UK, as well as eleven corporate partners, a number of case studies were carried out to assess the impact of e-business on the environment in terms of resources and energy consumption. The findings suggest that e-commerce has significant resource efficiency potentials.

One of the case studies compared three methods of purchasing pre-recorded music: in a shop, online, and downloading and listening to files on a computer. They found that purchasing a CD online uses 1.31kg of materials, which is equal to the impact of producing five aluminium drinks cans, while buying a CD in the high street can have a greater impact of 1.56kg, or the equivalent of six cans. Downloading the music online had a much lower impact, using only 0.67kg of material - less than three cans' worth.

Another case study looked at different methods of bill payment. Researchers discovered that paying a bill at a counter results in the use of 2.56kg of materials and resources, roughly equivalent to the impact of producing ten aluminium drinks cans. In contrast, paying bills online through a website results in the use of just over 1kg of materials, equivalent to only four aluminium drinks cans.

The report notes that the reduction in material used can be explained by the fact that online services render traditional building and transport infrastructures in the retail industry unnecessary. However, it adds that the potential dematerialisation resulting from e-commerce activities is still small and only applicable under certain circumstances.

For instance, although downloading music from the web can start out by having less of an environmental impact than buying a CD in a shop, the report points to the consumer habit of burning music files onto CDs, which effectively negates the initial action. Furthermore, a consumer must be connected to the Internet to download the files in the first place, but downloading large volumes of music via a slow connection can increase the amount of energy used. Similarly, using a high speed connection might entice consumers to stay connected longer and download more, resulting in a high usage of energy.

The report suggests a number of ways in which society can reap the benefits of e-commerce without increasing energy and materials consumption in the process. It claims that consumers need to be made aware of the potential impact of their choices, and that it is the role of policy makers to develop an e-society, which educates users, thus allowing them to handle digital information in such a way that energy consumption is kept to a minimum.

Referring to corporate responsibility, the report notes that developing cross sectoral cooperation and information strategies could help the e-business sector and its partners better understand the environmental impact of their services and products.

For further information, please visit the following web address:
http://www.digital-eu.org/publications/D efault.asp?pubid=32

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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