At the beginning of January Google launched Google Drive, part of the Paperless Coalition, a group of organisations and products aimed at helping people live in a paper-free world. The aim of Google Drive is to make it easier to keep documents in the cloud, rather than carry around paper copies. Google asks people to sign a pledge to go paperless in 2013.
In an open letter to Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO of Google, Two Sides says that ‘While the products and services delivered by Google are to be admired, this new initiative is clearly another example of a self interested organisation using an environmentally focussed marketing campaign to promote its services while ignoring its own impact upon the environment’.
The letter goes on to list the extent to which Google uses electricity in its operations and emissions generated by its users. It cites Google's power use, emissions from Google searches, using Gmail and watching YouTube, and the power used (and wasted) in data centres as a whole.
In the letter, Two Sides also points out that paper is made from wood, which is a sustainable and renewable product. Most of the energy to produce paper is renewable, the majority in the US and Europe from biomass. In the US more trees are grown than are harvested and forest cover in Europe is now 30% larger than in 1950.
Review: So is Google greenwashing?
Well, firstly, to be fair to Google, on the campaign website the company talks more about the convenience of using the cloud, rather than not using paper. Yes, there is a picture of tress, but the only reference to paper use is to point out the amount of paper recovered for recycling in the US. The company makes no specific environmental claims from its paperless initiative.
Perhaps Google shouldn’t have indicated any environmental issue at all in this context. There’s no doubt that the company has actively tried to be more sustainable, particularly with the significant investment in renewable energy. So it has a right to make some claims on green credentials, but this is not the best example.
As for Two Sides, it’s right to say that paper and wood are sustainable products, although given the fact that the organisations mission statement says that ‘Our common goal is to promote the responsible production and use of print and paper’ suggests that there is still some way to go (as is the case for sustainability in the ICT industry). Some of the figures it throws at Google are industry-wide, rather than Google-specific, and others, I suspect, are debatable (no doubt Google will make it’s own response).
But it would be better if the ICT and paper industries could get together, stop fighting each other and agree some guidelines on the issue. It doesn’t really matter who is right or wrong, the real problem is that it sends mixed messages to users and consumers, which further undermines attempts to save the planet.