How SMEs can limit their impact on climate when using digital services

By James Gill, below, Co-Founder, EcoSend

Do you consider the sustainability implications of sending a message on WhatsApp or an email? The answer is probably not. While smart meters have made us all a lot more mindful of our energy use in and around the home, there is little to bring to life the environmental impact of sending a work email to a colleague or a message to a friend.

However, put simply, there IS an environmental impact as every digital output creates carbon emissions. For example, did you know an email can generate as much as 26g of CO2e?

While that might not seem a lot, if we think about how many marketing emails we receive (which have also been sent to potentially thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of other people) and then send straight to the recycling bin, it all adds up.

For any small business looking to become more climate-conscious, it can be a real struggle to know where to start. When it comes to getting on top of your carbon emissions, how can this be tackled when you are unable to see a visible output?

In parallel, ESG (environmental, social, and governance) related issues are increasing in importance within businesses.

Initially seen as something only large corporates needed to concern themselves with, the World Economic Forum has published articles talking about the fact that SMEs need to be more tuned into the role they play in ESG and making resulting programmes a priority.

Where does the CO2e come from?

In short, data centres are mostly responsible for creating the carbon emissions involved in sending an email.

Why is this?

Every email that is sent needs to be processed through hardware in a data centre – both when it’s created, then sent, received, and then stored by the desired recipient.

While data centres have become more efficient over the last decade or so, vast amounts of energy are still needed to power and cool the equipment housed in them.

Equally, data from the Uptime Institute’s 12th annual Global survey found that only a third of data centre operators (37%) collect and report data related to their carbon emissions meaning there is a great deal being unreported around the world.

Given that some data centres can utilise the same amount of electricity as a small town, urgent action is needed to get on top of their energy use.

So, when it comes to digital marketing, what can a typical SME do to limit its climate impact?

Increasing visibility

Just as one might not consider the behind-the-scenes technology required when sending an email, the content we include in our emails and the number of people we send these to will have an impact on the energy needed for any given campaign.

For organisations sending monthly, weekly, or even daily newsletters, promotional emails, or onboarding emails, it all adds up. That’s why we have seen Carbon Calculators increasingly pop up in recent years, helping to bring the invisible impact on the climate to life. With a carbon calculator, you can see how much carbon is created from various activities, and even see how your email marketing has an impact depending on the size of your audience.

Providing visible evidence through Carbon Calculators increases the awareness of an organisation’s carbon impact. Acknowledging and understanding this data is an be an important step toward making a change.

Email housekeeping

Making other small changes can make a huge difference to an organisation.

Even considering the content of an email can be a positive step for the environment.

HTML emails often are larger and “heavier” than a simple plain text email (like the kind you’d send to a friend). This means HTML emails often require more computing power to process, impacting the amount of energy used and resulting in more carbon emissions.

Another element to review is who you’re sending emails to — are recipients opening and engaging with the content you’re sharing? If not, are they still interested in the business, or should they be removed? Depending on a variety of factors, many businesses can typically find as much as 60% of all recipients don’t engage with emails. This is bad for sender reputation, and bad for the carbon emissions being created from that email campaign.

Regularly reviewing your audience database is important to ensure you’re creating as much impact as possible in all their comms.

The added benefit

Not only can making these small changes benefit your organisation’s sustainability efforts, but it can also benefit customer engagement.

This is something we’ve seen with one of our key customers, Salanga, a values-driven for-profit organisation operating on social enterprise principles, providing capacity building, advisory, technical expertise, and tools to non-profits, academia, and the public sector.

We’ve been working with Salanga to improve their customer communication, and we’ve helped them to transform the onboarding of new users to their Kinaki app.

Thanks to taking a holistic approach to its automated messaging, Salanga has been able to benefit from more meaningful engagement with its users, improve its onboarding process, and reduce and offset the carbon footprint of its email marketing activity.

It turns out that many of the best tactics to make a climate conscious email marketing campaign are tactics that drive up conversion and engagement, too. Everyone wins.

For those organisations based on a strong set of purpose-focused values, making use of an email marketing platform that reflects these while at the same time improving results from digital campaigns could be a game changer – not only from an environmental impact perspective but also creating stronger relationships with customers.

While only a small part, increasing awareness of email’s impact on the climate is an important step in making a proactive change in an organisation’s ESG journey. No longer something for large businesses with large carbon outputs, companies of all sizes and sectors can take concerted steps to help the environment one email at a time.