Pointless emails, and confessions of an electronic hoarder

I’ve been struggling a bit with email etiquette in my current freelance gig. A lot of the people I’m in contact with are people I’ve never met in real life, which is pretty normal for freelance work – but these guys are all in substantive, mainly office-based jobs so I imagine aren’t often interacting with people they don’t know personally.

So I’m being really, really polite. Lots of emails saying things like, “thanks so much for coming back to me so quickly on this.”

I remembered reading an article a few months back about the climate impact of emails, and saving it to read later (more on my digital hoarding tendencies later). I reflected on this particularly over Christmas, when I read a lot about people sending e-cards instead of physical cards, as an environmental measure to reduce waste.

So I dug the articles out of the archive today and discovered the following facts, from a study by Ovo energy supplier in November:

  • Britons send 64 million unnecessary emails per day (just Britons… thinking about the global scale here is scary).
  • If each adult in Britain sent one less email per day, this would reduce annual carbon output by 16,433 tonnes. This is the equivalent of 81,152 flights from London to Madrid, or taking 3334 diesel cars off the road.
  • 71% of Britons wouldn’t mind not receiving a “thank you” email if it helped the environment.
  • 49% of Britons admit to sending emails daily to people who are within talking distance.

There’s a basic summary of the research here, and a slightly more interesting analytical piece in the Guardian here. Professor Mike Berners-Lee, a researcher and writer on carbon footprints at the University of Lancaster, advised OVO on the research, and he acknowledges that the numbers are crude estimates, but that the study emphasises the large and growing carbon footprint of IT. Your computer uses energy, the network through which you send emails uses energy and the storage of those emails on a cloud requires energy to run the data centre.

I haven’t quite worked out the solution to the conundrum of how to handle this situation in a freelance context – probably I need to get on the phone and work on building relationships, so it doesn’t feel like emailing strangers. But it seems sensible for most office-based folks to be working to reduce these pointless emails and replace them with conversations wherever possible. It doesn’t help when there’s documents to be shared, or an audit trail is required (but sometimes that’s a symptom of mistrust, which is interesting in itself). But if it’s just a quick “thanks” to Dave who sits in the next cubicle, you could say that as you walk past and offer to make him a coffee. Maybe if you’re worried about people thinking you’re a rude tosser, write a little footer for your emails like the ones people use asking you not to print their email to save trees: “If I don’t email back to say thanks for this email, I’m not being rude, I’m saving the planet!” Smiley face, thumbs up emoticon. Well, maybe not the emoticon. (Also, EverydayRad’s top email etiqeutte top tip – don’t put kisses on emails to your boss. Ever. Even if you love them. Even if it’s Friday night and you’ve had some wine.)

I’m procrastinating here on addressing the issue of my digital hoard. I’ve been reading around a bit on email culture and reflecting on my previous jobs – the always-on culture is damaging, for sure. Interesting article here on fixing our unhealthy obsession with work email (this is an HBR article, there’s a paywall after you’ve read 6 free articles). Another one here on the cost of continuously checking work emails and its impact on efficiency and creativity. Easier said than done to address this stuff, and I never managed it properly in a demanding full-time job, but it’s food for thought.

Anyway. Confession time. I currently have 5500 emails in my hotmail inbox. And I’m pathologically unable to just delete them all, despite my husband’s urging whenever he looks over my shoulder and sees the number on my screen, even though a lot of them are irrelevant now as they’ve been there so long. What if they’re really interesting? What if I miss something? I also have hundreds of articles and posts saved on Facebook – mainly things I want to blog about. It’s like a huge digital “to read” list and it actually makes me feel a bit anxious thinking about it. I’ve found a few questionable sources (which I’m not going to share because I think the research is a bit dodgy and I haven’t had time to check it out properly – oooh it’s that digital “to do” list again!) which says that the impact of storing an email is equivalent to one plastic bag, or 10g of carbon.

So, dear readers. I am accountable to you lot and I’m setting myself a target to get my inbox down to less than 100 by the end of March. It will help me feel cognitively clearer too, I know, as well as reducing the carbon footprint. As I go, I’m unsubscribing from loads of stuff – I’m trying to keep to the Buy Nothing principle in life, so emails showing me lovely organic children’s clothes are not very helpful. Also I get massive FOMO from all the galleries, museums and concerts I don’t have time to go to, so those mailing lists can go too. I’m going to try to tackle the archive too, and I’m not even going to admit to you all how big that is. But I don’t think I really need my work emails from 2012… really.

Here’s a tool to calculate the carbon footprint of your email – untested, might be totally made up, but I urge you to think about this issue and challenge yourselves to review your relationship with email, for environmental as well as mental health reasons.

Meanwhile, I wrote a fun thing about why zero waste doesn’t exist, which is going to be posted in another online magazine soon, so watch this space, will share the link soon.

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3 Comments

  1. This is very interesting and not something I had ever thought of having a carbon impact but it all makes sense. I dare not even login into my personal hotmail account to see how many unread emails I have, but I know it was nearly 5 figures last time I checked- and because emails come through to my phone for that account, I rarely check..so could be well over 10k now. For my writing I use three different email accounts (yup!) They are not so bad, but probably have a few hundred in each. I just thought I was being disorganised!

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