NEW YORK - Though intended to be a paperless communication medium, e-mail has felled more than its fair share of trees.
To fight back, a group that includes bloggers and business folk has begun punctuating its electronic communications with a sentence that's salutation, admonishment and battle cry in one. The message? Stop sending those memos to the laserjet.
Chances are, you've received the appeal, even if you didn't realize it. The line "Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail" and its variants have been gaining on that chestnut of electronic communications, "If you have received this e-mail in error, please delete it and notify the sender immediately." And, some would wryly argue, the environmentally friendly line could become equally unmemorable - drowned out as more "background noise" or "clutter."
Fans of this conservationist creed say they were less likely to waste paper after first seeing it in a colleague's e-mail, later rigging their own e-mail program to automatically paste the sentence alongside their phone number and title, typically in green font. As with many things viral, its origins are murky.
And while it's difficult to quantify its impact, the practice has caught on from the blogosphere to the boardroom. The e-mail tagline earned a plug in March from the blog TreeHugger. And after dozens of employees at project-management and construction company Bovis Lend Lease began adopting the message in the last year, the 10,000-person company made an exception to its rule requiring a standard style of e-mail signature, according to its sustainability chief.
Kate Payne, a 27-year-old film publicist in L.A., adopted the tagline about a year ago after it made her think twice about printing a colleague's e-mail.
"In our office, there's a lot of white paper that gets used up daily and it sort of stings my heart a little bit every time I see someone print out a 50-page e-mail correspondence," she said.
The average office worker in the U.S. prints 10,000 sheets of copy paper pear year (or about 50 kilograms), compared to about 8,800 sheets by the average British worker, according to the nonprofit Metafore, which advises businesses on how to make their paper supplies more environmentally friendly. Adding in paper products used in the home and elsewhere, the U.S. ranks second in the world behind Finland in per capita consumption, at 311 kilograms per person per year.
Metafore chief executive David Ford said anything that raises awareness of people's consumption habits is a positive step, although "whether it'll actually save a lot of paper in the long run, I'm not sure."
Jennifer Hattam, lifestyle editor for the Sierra Club's bimonthly magazine, said the taglines would be less meaningful than changes implemented by office decision-makers.
"If individuals get the message and reduce their printing, that's great," she said. "But if someone's in position for setting policy for a whole office ... then that's going to have a magnified effect."
Bovis vice-president and sustainability guru Paul King said that, while the tagline isn't a formal part of the company's waste reduction initiatives, it's useful if it gets people thinking about efforts that are. The company is greening its offices by reducing the ratio of printers to people and replacing paper cups with reusable china in its kitchens, among other moves.
In a very unscientific survey of his e-mail inbox, King counted that 27 of 33 e-mails from Bovis employees received on a recent day included the sentence.
"It spread very much virally. There was never any request from anyone in the company for this to be included. Nor was there any objection," said King.
Similarly, Andrew Kalish, a 24-year-old account executive at PR firm Edelman, said voluntary use of the tagline is common among its 2,100 employees, and attributes its popularity to word-of-mouth. Kalish began using it after noticing it in colleagues' e-mails.
But could the message become a victim of its own successful spread?
Deborah Fallows, a senior research fellow at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said that while the message is benign, it's also easily overlooked.
"Taglines become part of the 'clutter' within e-mail and the Internet user experience in general that make it much more likely that readers will overlook them or dismiss them, than be offended by them or feel harangued by them," she said in an e-mail.
James Orsi, who runs an Internet gallery of annoying e-mail signatures, concurred.
"If that is going to be adopted by a lot of businesses, it's going to become background noise. It's just going to be ignored," said Orsi, who by day serves as business analyst for an Internet development company.
However, Orsi remarked, "I wouldn't necessarily put it up in my gallery."