Sustainability in our business – is it time to scrap print as e-publishing beckons?

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The advance of personal electronic devices over the past 30 years has been accompanied by a growing chorus of calls for people to go paperless as well as predictions by futurists, educators, electronics makers and others that print materials – books, magazines, newspapers, etc. – are bound for the scrap heap as the world goes digital and embraces e-publishing. A paperless world would be more sustainable too. But is it really that straightforward? In this article, we look at choosing between ‘print’ an ‘pixel’ as we seek to integrate socially responsible and sustainable practices into our day-to-day investment-related activities as an asset manager and as company embracing corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles (see below for more). 

There can be little doubt that many environmentalists would advocate e-publishing rather than print, given the deep ecological footprint the paper and pulp industry has left on, for instance, forests and water usage. While measures to reduce such environmental pressures (see, for example, the 2014 American Forest and Paper Association Sustainability Report) and make the industry more socially responsible and sustainable should have helped to counter this type of criticism, other arguments in favour of preserving and stimulating the use of print have gained in prominence. There is a solid body of (academic) thought arguing that there are clear-cut cases in which reading (and writing) texts in print is to be preferred over screen-based content.

Interactivity at a price?

Whereas print on its own can obviously channel information to the reader efficiently, e-books, e-magazines and other digital information channels offer possibilities for two-way communication, allowing readers to provide feedback and ask questions, surf to the related topics, access sound and video content on the internet, track what other readers are thinking and connect with them or the author.

Publishers can use e-publications to track tastes and preferences. While such interactivity may stimulate progress and development, it is worth noting that there could be a price to pay in the form of less privacy. There are distribution and reproduction gains. Originally written and copied by hand,   later copied by machine and printed on a printing press, books can now be scanned and digitised, and turned into an e-book or a portable file, to be sent by e-mail, downloaded or bought online. Undeniably, that is progress. That said, are e-publications as effective as printed materials in communicating a message?


It is more natural

The brain is ‘wired’ for speech, sight, motor skills and recognising objects, including, if you like, letters. At a basic level, visual information is essential for survival, spotting dangers or finding food. This is the reptilian, or primal, brain at work. Reading can be compared to surveying a defined landscape, making a mental map and understanding where you are. It can be argued that reading on paper is more spatial and physical and closer to the way the mind works than reading on a screen.

Continuing in that vein, reading can be said to be a more tactile experience, involving more than just eye contact. One could argue that print requires more time to read – it is less easily scannable than a digital production – but the flipside of that is that there is more time for the message to sink in and be thought about. The eye is fixed on a single printed page, which contains more than just words. Page numbers, chapter titles, illustrations – all are nearby and contribute to comprehension, and crucially, retention of the message.

It is about what you are left with

By contrast, reading ‘aids’ or ‘markers’ such as subheaders and quotes often have to be added deliberately to a screen page to make a purely visual experience more like physical reading. Their absence can cause the eye to wander, searching for what is relevant, and bringing with it the risk of content being glossed over and ignored. Thus, a digital presentation of content becomes an invitation to scan and skip in the search for keywords and relevance, whereas printed content is an invitation to read, and re-read if necessary, boosting the chances of the message being appreciated, taken seriously and retained.

Exhibit 1: A decision tree to determine which format would be effective for a particular type of content

Decision tree

Source: author, November 2015

A question of pushing the right buttons

Of course that does not mean that there is no room for digital and that only print can be the sensible option for publishing content. You could argue that a preference for print can be seen in the declining sales of e-readers, but that would be to ignore that sales of e-books account for 30% of US consumer book sales and that sales of e-readers have fallen, partly because such a dedicated reader has been made obsolete by multipurpose devices such as the tablet which offer similar-sized screens and are just as portable. The continued physical appeal of the book has also played a part.

Rather than ruling out the one to the benefit of the other, one should remember that the reptilian brain has evolved to an ‘emotional’, limbic brain and a ‘neomammalian’ brain that handles the most complex content. Whatever the approach to content publishing, the reptilian brain cannot be ignored. In fact, it could well be the starting point, in that content should include elements that appeal to this way of handling information. This means having elements that allow the recipient to ‘get’ the information quickly, in an easy-to-grasp format, literally digestible in three seconds. Does that spell ‘visual’? Does it favour using a fast-moving digital channel? Yes, to both questions.

Exhibit 2: content marketing options: from paper to pixel, from book to bit


Source: Smart Insights, BNP Paribas Asset Management, 2 December 2015

The right tools for the right channel

Depending on the target readership you are trying to reach, elements that appeal to the other ‘brains’ might need to be added, such as guides, case studies or reviews – elements that can literally require the reader to sit down and digest them using a channel that has ‘print’ written all over it. That would leave paper publications best suited to goals such as education, refinement and the advancement of thought, while not ruling out the use of print for commercial purposes such as branding and marketing. An analysis of the subject, the purpose of the publication and the target readership are critical elements to the choice of format (see exhibit 2 above for a possible range of ‘tools’).

Print for a purpose such as teaching, rather than simply informing, has been said to have a bright future. Twinning it with ‘digital’, enriching content with embedded media and software, could result in a winning combination. This leaves room for both online and physical book stores, electronic device and software producers as well as publishers, and a raft of other companies serving the spectrum from print to digital, but beware: it should be print for what must be remembered and digital for what must be noted. And provided we use recycled paper or paper produced from responsibly managed forests, we believe there’s no contradiction between using printed publications and a sustainable approach to our business.


How BNP Paribas Asset Management acts as a responsible company:

Environmental responsibility

We aim to minimise the impact of our business on the environment and, in particular, on climate change. We have reviewed the greenhouse gas emissions by all activities under operational control in France and put in place an action plan to reduce these emissions.

To reduce our carbon footprint, we also minimise our company’s consumption of paper and our employees’ business travel through the use of videoconferencing.

Our approach to CSR is based on the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment, which we signed in 2006, as well as the responsibility charter of BNP Paribas, our parent company, and its commitment to responsible development.

SRI as an investing theme

Sustainable and responsible investments (SRI) is one of the nine themes which we think reflect investors’ key priorities this year. Linked to those themes we have chosen funds which we believe represent the most relevant solutions to the challenges of the current market environment as well as the evolving needs of our clients.

BNP Paribas Asset Management’ offering includes a broad range of SRI products to meet the needs of clients who are keen to combine return potential with making a positive impact on the environment and society.

We were one of the first top-tier asset managers to publish the carbon footprint of funds and to commit to decarbonising our SRI portfolios. This translates into disinvestment, based on certain criteria, from mining companies and electricity producers. In general, we do not invest in companies that make or trade in antipersonnel landmines, cluster ammunition and other controversial products such as asbestos fibres. We also do not invest in companies that have been linked to corruption, human/labour rights violations or serious environmental pollution.

More on > home > Corporate Social Responsibility

Nieck Ammerlaan

Senior web content editor & investment content writer

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