Downloading music, software applications and video has become commonplace, reducing the need for consumers to drive their cars to buy DVDs, CDs and the like.  This ConsumerGram focuses on the positive environmental impact of buying online and finds that just downloading music has resulted in 6.5 billion fewer miles driven each year.  Less driving benefits the environment.  Specifically, we estimate that music downloads alone have spared the emission of 23.6 million tons of greenhouse gases in the last 10 years, and is likely to contribute another 9.8 million in the next ten years.  Similarly, as consumers download software and videos, additional environmental benefits will occur.  Furthermore, other benefits are realized throughout the supply chain from the avoidance of production and transportation costs associated with manufacturing and distribution of physical products.  


Contribution to the Environment

Last year at a roundtable discussion at the National Press Club, the American Consumer Institute released a study entitled “Broadband Services: Economic and Environmental Benefits.”  The study found that the widespread adoption and use of broadband applications – including telecommuting, teleconferencing, e-commerce, telemedicine and distance learning – could lead to a 1 billion ton reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over 10 years.  Prior to its release, the study was shared with and vetted by environmental groups concerned about the link among greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change.  This ConsumerGram adds yet another benefit of IT and broadband services to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


Music Down the Pipe

According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), there were nearly 1.1 billion music CDs, cassettes, LPs, singles and music videos shipped in 1997 and growing.  In fact, if the growth rate of shipments had continued, the industry would have shipped arguably 1.8 billion physical units in 2007.  Because broadband consumers are downloading music to their computers, IPods and other devices, physical shipments actually fell to 544 million units in 2007 from 1997.  To put this drop in shipments in perspective of where 1997’s trend would be today, shipments in 2007 have fallen 1.3 billion units below the trend. 


Interestingly, RIAA data shows that downloaded music, including music videos and sales through kiosks, subscription and mobile services, accounted for 1.2 billion units sold in 2007, suggestion that consumers are substituting away from physical recordings to downloaded recordings en masse.  Of course, piracy and illegal downloading continues to hurt the industry. 


It’s the Hard Drive, Not Overdrive

The substitution of digital downloads for the purchase of physical recordings means that consumers no longer need to drive to the store.  That means that fuel and time can be saved, as can the emission of harmful greenhouse gases.  Using the estimate of the reduction in shipments (off the trend), assuming that a trip to the store averages 10 miles roundtrip and assuming that two units are purchased for every trip to the store, we estimate that 6.5 billion driving miles were saved in just 2007.  Accumulatively, the reduction in driving amounts to a savings in greenhouse gases of 17.6 million tons in the last 10 years.  Because physical recordings are being replaced by downloading, demand for plastic cases (made mostly from petroleum) are also reduced.  Using the methodology from the original study, we estimate that 6 million tons of emissions have been saved in the last 10 years by reducing the demand for plastic cases.  In sum, 23.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions were avoided by consumers downloading music in the last 10 years.


As consumers continue to substitute from physical units to digital downloads, the savings will continue.  In the next 10 years, we estimate that 7.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions will be avoided by reducing driving miles and 2.5 million tons will be avoided by the elimination of plastic CD cases, resulting in an additional 9.8 million tons of environmental savings. 


However, the benefits cited here can be far greater, since games, videos, DVDs and computer software can also be downloaded too, saving more driving time and reducing other plastic media, none of which were estimated here.  Furthermore, not only does the environment save when a consumer avoids a trip to the store, it saves energy associated with manufacturing, transportation and distribution of the product to the store. 


Since IT services consume energy, of course, it is also important that consumers power down their equipment when not in use, use power strips to turn off chargers and the like in order to maximize the environmental benefits of using broadband-connected applications.


IT Services is a Green Machine

To summarize, the American Consumer Institute estimated that Internet-based technologies, such as telecommuting, e-materialization, distance learning and other applications, would reduce greenhouse gases by one billion tons over the next ten years.  While the study provided a comprehensive look at the benefits of information technologies on the environment, it admittedly noted that much more work was needed to quantify the full benefits of these technologies on the environment.  For instance, the study estimated that telecommuting could cut greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by about 600 million tons over the next ten years, while increasing consumer benefits, investments and jobs.  This ConsumerGram finds that downloading has become another way consumers avoid trips to the store to buy software, games, music and movies.  In fact, from music alone, we estimate that downloading has spared the emission of 23.6 million tons of greenhouse gases in the last 10 years, and is likely to contribute another 9.8 million in the next ten years.  


And, did we mention, consumers can save money and time too?



Suggested Reading

  • Joseph Fuhr and Stephen Pociask, “Economic and Environmental Benefits, the American Consumer Institute, Reston, Va, October 31, 2007.