Eco Strategy and Digital Signage

“Digital signage is environmentally friendly” – this is a common refrain in the industry. But is it true? Should organizations really care about this? And is digital signage really a viable alternative to traditional ways of communicating? You bet it is.

Digital signage can replace most or even all paper communications in an organization. Which is a good thing because:

  • A ton of paper is 400 reams (200,000 sheets), which requires 17 trees and 26,281 liters of water to produce.
  • The process generates 264 kilograms of air pollution per ton.
  • The pulp and paper industry itself is the fifth largest energy consumer in the world, using around 4% of the total energy consumed worldwide.
  • US businesses account for 21 million tons of paper annually (about 175 pounds per employee, so one ton for every 11.4 employees).
  • Americans make 400 billion photocopies a year, or 750,000 copies every minute.
  • 25% of all landfill in the US, despite increased recycling efforts, consists of paper.
  • Paper itself degrades, as well as the ink on it, creating methane and other gases which are released into the air, water and soil.

The paper industry has made efforts to reduce destructive practices like clear cutting (which, among other things, hastens the erosion of topsoil), but that’s still a lot of paper and a lot of trees.

It’s also costly:

  • 45% of printed documents in offices ends up in the trash by the end of the day (and around 30% of printed documents are never even picked up at the printer).
  • 70% of all trash generated by businesses is paper.
  • US companies alone are spending in excess of $120 million a year just on paper (not including ink or disposal costs).

So constantly printing things on paper and distributing them kills a lot of trees, creates a lot of pollution and costs quite a bit of money. And a lot of the documents produced aren’t even used or kept. If there’s a cleaner, cheaper alternative available, it only makes sense to use it.

Organizations should care about being eco-friendly because the people that make up those organizations care. The MIT AgeLab recently conducted a study of millennials on their environmental attitudes compared to previous generations, and then Forbes expanded on that research. Millennials see themselves as more environmentally conscious than Boomers and Xers, but those last two also feel that they have increased awareness and changed their behavior to be more “eco” since they were in their 20s.

While there are some reports that people’s perceptions of themselves are at odds with what they actually do (such as the State of Fashion 2018 report by BoF & McKinsey and other research, which finds that 66% of millennials say they’d spend more on sustainable brands yet only 37% actually do so), that isn’t really the point. The main thing is that everyone believes they think it’s important.

So, it behooves an organization to create a culture of sustainability. We’re not talking about “greenwashing” here (which is doing things that give the appearance of being eco-friendly but actually aren’t), but a real cultural focus on being what we call “environmentally responsible”.  As Prasenjit Bhattacharya of Great Place to Work India said, “In a great place to work, the culture becomes the CEO.” Suffusing your organization with ecological awareness creates an overall attitude that affects behavior across the board, without constant pushing from the top.

Digital signage communicates whatever you want to whomever you want, wherever they are, in a repeating loop. Just this alone improves communications flow immensely, reduces the need to print hundreds of copies of something and then have someone spend their (paid) time distributing those pages (which will probably be read once and then end up in the trash).

But messages can be stacked – there are multiple zone layouts that can show several different pieces of information at the same time (and interactive displays allow even denser information access). And whatever is being displayed can be updated instantly, whereas a whole new round of paper would be needed to change printed communications. And again, there’s a labor savings – one person can make changes system-wide from a single computer running the digital signage content management system.

Of course, you could argue that digital signage simply replaces paper waste with electricity usage. Yes, digital signs need power, but not as much as you might think.  Most displays now have at least 100,000 hours of life in them – that means that, even if you never turned your digital signs off, you’d still get 10 years of use out of them (and most facilities run their digital signage for 10 hours a day, five days a week, not 24/7).

You can use the Energy Use Calculator to see exactly how much a certain display uses. For example, an LCD or LED screen that uses 40 watts, in use for 10 hours a day, at a cost of $0.12 per kWh (the US average), costs $1.46 a month, or $17.52 a year. Even if you get a great deal on paper, say $5 per ream, that’s the same as 3.5 reams of paper – for a year’s use. And remember that LED screens tend to use less electricity than LCDs, and last longer.

Displays are also easily recycled, often consisting of what are called cradle-to-cradle components (this means parts of the displays can be removed and used elsewhere as is, without needing to be broken down or melted). Some vendors even have hardware trade-in programs, so you can swap out old devices for new ones at little or no cost to you. Aluminum, copper, gold, polycarbonate plastic and other materials can be directly harvested from most displays when they’re retired.

And while power is certainly required for displays and computers to run your digital signage system, modern screens have reduced energy consumption by up to 90% compared to 20 years ago. Energy Star releases new product lists every year, so it’s easy to find energy-efficient devices. And some systems have device control, which means they automatically power down PCs and screens when scheduled to do so (like your computer’s sleep mode).

Energy dashboards can also leverage actual, real-time data about current energy usage in a building. The data is fed directly to the digital signs, showing current statistics in an easy-to-understand visualization, with a target goal. Organizations that use these see people actually walk around and turn off lights or devices not currently being used. Other data can include water consumption, recycling efforts and so on.

There are other things you can do to reduce power use. Adjust brightness levels for each screen, so they can still be easily seen at all hours of the day, but aren’t cranked up to full all the time. Brightness is a major factor in how much power a screen uses. Simply reducing from 100% down to 70% will probably not affect the effectiveness of the digital sign at all, yet it will reduce your energy consumption by 20%. Some screens have built-in brightness controls that react to the ambient light around them. See how low you can go with each display’s brightness without losing impact.

One thing many people forget about is fans. If your media players and computers use fans, they’re using electricity. Try to position them in places with good airflow, so the fans don’t have to come on as often. If you have filters on the fans, clean them regularly – dirty filters make the fans work harder, which uses more power.

It’s not just that it looks “cool” or “modern” (it does) – digital signage actually has benefits over paper, in terms of cost, effort and environmental impact. And though electricity is a requirement for digital signage, there are many options available that reduce power consumption, plus steps you can take to reduce it even further. Your employees, visitors and community members think about the environment a lot these days, so any organization that makes efforts in this direction will be seen as a good neighbor and a great place to work.