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It’s fairly common to see the phrase, ‘Please consider the environment before printing this email,’ in email signatures, particularly those of carbon-conscious workers and business owners.

But with our growing awareness of digital sustainability – and taking into account the amount of energy required to both send and store emails – perhaps we should update this, to ‘Please consider the environment before REPLYING TO this email.’

In this article, we’ll look into the hidden impacts email has on the environment, and we’ll share some tips on how you can cut down the number of emails you send, and reduce the size of your inbox along the way.

Stats on the impact of emails

Tips for sending fewer emails at work

Sending fewer emails would certainly be better for the environment. There’s no denying how important email is to work communication, but it has arguably become too intrinsic in the world of ‘knowledge work,’ and we need to consider ways of breaking the current cycle and moving away from using email as a core part of our workflow.

Just a few things we can do as designers, developers and project managers to use email more sustainably are:

  • Record project updates into a system like Trello, so everything is in one place rather than scattered throughout your inbox.
  • Give clients an easy way to book a meeting with you that avoids the email back-and-forth of diary matching. Calendar software like Calendly or SavvyCal allows you to make appointments available, and clients to choose and book the best slot for them.
  • Distribute documents via a Shared Drive rather than by sending revisions back and forth as multiple large attachments.
  • Stop copying everyone in, especially if you’re sending attachments.

Rethinking how we use email

Of course, email isn’t just about managing workflow, and certainly in today’s ‘work from home’ model it is often the primary method of communicating with colleagues and clients.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still ways we can limit the environmental impact of our email behaviours, though. In order to cut down the number of emails we send, receive and store, for example, we can try changing the way we write. But we can also rethink the way we use email altogether.

For example, why not try:

  • Slowing down how quickly and how often you reply to emails, and make use of the ‘send later’ functionality of your email client.
  • Reframing your thoughts around the ‘need’ to reply to every message. You don’t. Unless you need to ask a question or take an action, don’t reply.
  • Encouraging your colleagues and clients to call you instead if there’s a back-and-forth conversation that needs to be had – this will mean you avoid getting into a game of ‘email tennis.’
  • Stopping treating email as an instant messaging service, and stop sending/encouraging one-word responses like ‘Thanks’ and ‘OK’.
  • Communicating your availability and let people know when they can expect to hear from you.

These suggestions might feel like they go against the grain, and you might even worry about appearing rude. But if you take time in the beginning of a new working relationship to explain how (and why) you use email, most people will understand.

You could try outlining it to clients and collaborators in a ‘terms of communication’ section in your contract, for example, or even manage expectations with a sentence in your email signature that lets people know when you check your emails and when you might respond.

Reduce the size of the emails you send

The next challenge to consider is the size of any emails you can’t avoid sending, and that means optimising them to limit the amount of server space (and related energy) they will use once they arrive into the recipient’s inbox.

You can keep the size of your emails to a minimum by:

  • Storing attachments in a separate place (such as a Shared Drive) instead of in the email itself. You can then link to the file from your email and later delete it from the drive once it’s no longer required.
  • Simplifying your email signature and optimising any images it contains (or, ideally, removing them entirely).
  • Avoiding custom fonts that need to be loaded in externally from a third-party service. System fonts are better for the environment because every device has them and they don’t need to be downloaded.

Clear out your inbox

Clearing out old emails from your inbox will free up space on your mail server and reduce the amount of energy required to store it. This will help to reduce CO2 emissions, and, if you’re paying for storage, you might even save money because you need less of it.

To make clearing out and organising your inbox a little less daunting, try these tips:

  • Order your inbox by size so you can find the messages with massive attachments more easily. Then get rid of them.
  • Oh, and make sure you properly DELETE them, not just archive them, because archiving simply moves them to another folder.
  • If you regularly receive invoices by email, check whether the sender keeps a record on their website that you can access so you don’t need to save them in your inbox.
  • If all else fails, you can declare ‘email bankruptcy’ and delete EVERYTHING. If it was anything important, someone will (probably) follow it up with you.

For more information on tidying your digital life, check out Digital Cleanup Day.

Dealing with spam

It’s estimated that roughly 49% of all emails sent are considered spam. What an absolute waste of time and energy. There are, however, a few things you can do in an attempt to stop bots from clogging up your inbox…

  • Stay on top of your spam filters. Delete on sight, and tag any common phrases for automatic deletion.
  • Avoid (wherever possible) putting your email address into the public domain so that it can’t get scraped by spam bots.
  • Protect your contact forms against bots using tools like keyword filters, honeypot fields or premium software such as Akismet. 

Make your email newsletter more eco-friendly

An email newsletter is a top tool for keeping in touch with your community, as well as promoting your business. This does, of course, have an environmental impact that will scale as your mailing list grows. That means it’s important to use your newsletter considerately and consciously.

We recommend you:

  • Limit the number of images you include, and remember to compress any you do use with a tool like TinyPNG before uploading them to your mailing software.
  • Reduce your sending schedule. You don’t need to email your list every week if you don’t have anything time-sensitive to say – think quality over quantity!
  • Turn off tracking, which generates massive emissions as well as raises ethical questions around privacy.
  • Choose your mailing platform wisely. Use an eco-conscious newsletter service such as ButtonDown or EcoSend, which use part of their profits to support climate projects.
  • Periodically clear out unresponsive subscribers (some newsletter services can do this automatically) – there is no point in sending your newsletter to anyone who isn’t reading it.

More tips for using your email more mindfully

  • UNSUBSCRIBE from newsletters you don’t read.
  • Keep any useful files or links on your device or in a shared drive instead of emailing them to yourself.
  • Turn off automated notifications from any online services (or try to batch them into sending multiple updates in a single email).
  • Be wary of any AI-based tools that can write drafts of your email newsletters, as these will use massive amounts of energy and have a considerable impact on the environment. If you struggle with writing your own content, try outsourcing to another small business or freelancer, who will not only value the work, but will deliver a much more specialist and personalised experience.

Conclusion

We hope this article has highlighted the impact of our email behaviours and given you some useful pointers for using email more consciously. We have covered how:

  • Email has a gigantic global carbon footprint.
  • Changing your email usage habits can considerably reduce the number of messages you send and receive each day.
  • Reducing the size of the emails you send, by storing documents in a shared drive and optimising your signature, can have a huge impact.
  • Keeping on top of your email and contact form spam filters can help keep your inbox clean, and free up energy-intensive server space.
  • Regularly clearing out your inbox of messages you no longer need can reduce CO2 generation even further.
  • Adopting a quality over quantity approach to your email newsletter and using an ethical mailing platform is not only better for the planet, but better for your subscribers and better for your business too.

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