A new report from the Cleantech Group (available for purchase or to Cleantech clients) takes on a big question: Are the Kindle and other eReaders really "green"?


In Forrester's surveys, we've found that of US online adults who are interested in eReaders, 51% say they're interested because they think that eReaders are "better for the environment." But I've often wondered if consumers just believe that eReaders are green, or if they really are.


Here's my take on Cleantech's findings:


  • Yes, eReaders are greener than print. The report looks at the carbon footprint of print production and distribution of books, newspapers, and magazines, as well as the negative impact of the Kindle and its brethren on the environment (mining, energy use, water waste, disposal, etc.). Cleantech uses Forrester and other data to estimate the extent to which using an eReader would offset print use. Comparing the relative impact of print waste, eReader reduction of print waste, and eReaders' own waste, Cleantech finds that "When compared to what it would replace, the Kindle consistently comes out ahead," calculating that the Kindle's own carbon footprint would be offset by its benefits after 1 year of use.
  • But they will only have a positive environmental impact if publishers cut back on print. Cleantech makes reasonable assumptions about the extent to which consumers will use Kindles to buy eContent, but it acknowledges that "any reductions in emissions are fully dependent on the publishing industry reducing production of physical books." This is a key point: Publishers actually have to print and ship fewer books in order for eReaders to have a positive environmental impact. Right now, sales of eBooks are small ($113 million in revenue in 2008, accounting for less than 2% of US book sales), and sales of newspapers and magazines on the Kindle are too small to count. We and other analyst firms predict rapid growth of eReaders and content sales, but publisher behavior will ultimately determine the overall "green" impact of eReaders.