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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The paper to digital media transition : defining sustainability in media supply chains Bull, Justin G.


The phrase, “please consider the environment before printing this email” has entered the common vernacular. It suggests that when I consider the environment, paper media is of particular concern, and by inference, digital media is not. This thesis tackles the legitimacy of this claim by examining how media sustainability operates from three critical perspectives: industry, consumers, and academia. To measure the paper industry’s perspective, a series of interviews with business executives along a supply chain were conducted. I found that collaboration between supply chain actors is a prerequisite for improving environmental performance. To gain insight on the consumer’s perspective, I surveyed 1,400 individuals in North America, investigating media habits and environmental values. I found that consumers are shifting from paper to digital media, but that environmental values have no influence over this shift. This suggests that consumers could be detached from the environmental impacts of their media choices. Finally, the academic perspective was analyzed through a comprehensive review of life cycle assessment (LCA) research that compares paper and digital media from an environmental perspective. The studies found that digital media is almost always preferable to paper, requiring less energy and materials. However, they did not assess the assumptions required in order to compare such different products. More worryingly, the context of media consumption – the industrial systems that produce paper and digital products – was never taken into account. I conclude that since a significant media shift is underway new methods are required to consider sustainability. The new methods should be anchored in two concepts that could improve considerations of the environmental performance of industrial systems. First, industrial ecology, the idea that industry might mimic nature, can strengthen initial assessments of environmental performance. Second, capability maturity models can assist in gauging the ability of industrial systems to manage and improve environmental performance over time.

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