Paper Books vs. Online Content


This article will explore the widespread belief that e-books and online content is environmentally more friendly than hard copy paper books. First, however lets take a look at the history of technology.

The invention and adoption of every technology is a response to a problem that existed in the past. Today, we tout the coming age of (clean energy powered) electric or hybrid cars as solution to reducing the fossil fuel consumption, air pollution and CO2 emissions caused by internal combustion engine powered cars. The car however was itself a response to an even earlier environmental problem – the vast amounts of manure on city streets caused by the horse and buggy.

At the time of the invention of the internal combustion engine, no one considered CO2 emissions or climate change to be a problem. This illustrates the law of unintended consequences. We cannot foresee all the environmental impacts of technology, let alone foresee how it will be used. The internet is prime example, invented by the military for fast, secure communications, it has become a worldwide tool for commerce, social interaction and political movements (as well as porn, online gambling and Facebook poking).

The proliferation of this technology has resulted in enormous data centres, communication networks and billions of end user devices (computers, iPads, iPhones) consuming vast amounts of energy. According to Yale, Since 1990, household energy consumption has been rising worldwide at 3.4 percent a year, in large part because of the rapid spread and increasing sophistication of electronic devices. At this rate, household energy consumption doubles every 20 years.

Lets compare the environmental impact of the production, transportation, use and disposal of paper versus electronic content. Remember, all electronic content is stored on and accessed through electronic devices. This is the elephant in the room. Continue reading “Paper Books vs. Online Content”

The Library 2.5

This book sells for HK$400 at Dymocks. With a few clicks I had it delivered to my neighborhood library for HK$2.50 and kept it for over 2 months for free.

SERVICE RATING Awesome. The public library’s selection is unparalleled and vastly superior to those of Hong Kong’s closet-sized bookstores. The online search, reservation and renewal functions work great. The reservation function allows you to have a book delivered, no matter which branch it’s currently in, to the one closest to you. There are after hours book return drop boxes outside every branch and at Central, Kowloon Tong and Nam Cheong MTR stations.

GREEN RATING Deep Green. Much greener than buying a book you’ll likely only read once and infinitely greener than downloading books to your Kindle or iPad (explained below).


The US media has proclaimed the sharing revolution to be the next big thing. From Zipcar to Netflix it’s taking hold all over the US. The public library though has been sharing since forever.


Buying books has three distinct disadvantages that borrowing from the library overcomes. Often times you simply don’t know if a book is good or not. Just like you wouldn’t commit to marrying someone after a first date, you probably don’t want to commit to spending the time and money to buy and read a book after only perusing a few page. Second, once you own it, it ends up taking up precious real estate in your space deprived Hong Kong apartment. Lastly, it’s a pain to pack up every time you move. For me, these practical drawbacks simply outweigh any psychic pleasure I gain from owning a book.


Many trees are chopped down in the process of making books while much fossil fuel is burned transporting them. It is often suggested that iPads or e-readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle, offer a solution. Unfortunately, these devices and the gear that supports them are an environmental disaster. The environmental impact resulting from the manufacture and disposal of electronics, which are replaced on average every 3-4 years, has been well documented. According to Time, “A lot of exported e-waste ends up in Guiyu, China, a recycling hub where peasants heat circuit boards over coal fires to recover lead, while others use acid to burn off bits of gold. …Guiyu has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world and elevated rates of miscarriages.”

A hidden but no less damaging consequence of the online revolution has been the massive amounts of energy consumed to run all that high tech gear. Data centres, networks and PCs collectively consume unbelievable amounts of electricity. At a PolyU Energy and Environment conference I attended, one of speakers asked the audience the following question “What is the best option [from an environmental perspective] of transporting a dozen books from Australia to Hong Kong within 24 hours: (a) ship them via air, (b) download them to your e-reader or (c) burn them onto some disks and then ship them by air? As you probably guessed, it turns out to be (c). What is surprising though is that (a) actually has lower carbon emissions than (b) due to all the energy required to run data centres and networks 24 hours a day and move data at lightspeed. Continue reading “The Library 2.5”

An Inspirational Guide to Building an Environmentally Sustainable Business

TITLE Let My People Go Surfing. The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

BOOK RATING An inspiring and useful guide for those seeking to build an environmentally sustainable business.

GREEN RATING Deep Green. Book is printed on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified and recycled paper.

AVAILABLE AT Can be reserved online and sent to a public library near you for HK$ 2.50

For those who haven’t heard of Patagonia, there is a very good reason why: it simply does not promote its outdoor apparel to people that do not need them. This business philosophy stands out when the Timberlands and North Faces of the world are hawking their outdoor gear to city slickers that will use them mainly in the extreme conditions of IFC or Festival Walk. Patagonia’s products on the other hand are highly sought after by true outdoor enthusiasts.

This book by Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard,  is truly a refreshing change from business books written by egomaniacs like Jack Welch and Donald Trump or by out of touch ivory tower academics. The title “Let My People Go Surfing” refers to the company flex-time policy that when the surf is up, you can drop what you’re doing and go surfing so long as you get all your work done properly. It is structured broadly into 3 sections: (1) “History” which reads like an autobiography; (2) “Philosophies” of product design, production, distribution, image, finance, human resources, management and environment provides practical guidelines enlivened by great stories; and (3) “1% For the Planet” which discusses the companies philanthropic initiatives.

Here are just a few examples makes Patagonia a Deep Green company:

1. It was the first company to recycle plastic drink bottles into fleece. Chouinard writes: “At the time of our fiber study, we were manufacturing a lot of fleece jackets made from virgin polyester, the only kind of polyester available. So we worked with a company called Wellman to find alternatives. They developed a process that takes soda pop bottles, which are also made of polyester, and recycled them into raw material for jackets. It takes 25 bottles to make a jacket, and from 1993 to 2003 we diverted 86 million soda bottles from landfills. For every 150 virgin polyester jackets that we replaced with post-consumer recycled polyester, we saved 42 gallons of oil and prevented a half ton of toxic emissions.”

2. Patagonia completely phased out the use of conventionally grown cotton in 1996. After visiting a cotton farm, Chouinard realizes the devastating effect of cotton farming on the land. Chouinard writes, “today 25% of the annual worldwide insecticide use and 10% of of the annual worldwide pesticide use are applied to conventionally grown cotton, even though cotton fields occupy less than 3% of the world’s farmland. Many of these chemicals were originally formulated as nerve gases for warfare, so it’s no surprise the higher rates of birth defects and cancer have been found in both humans and wildlife surrounding cotton fields.” Continue reading “An Inspirational Guide to Building an Environmentally Sustainable Business”