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What’s the carbon footprint of your email-driven external collaborations?

At Every Turn TakeTurns Blog
|  by
Conrad Chuang
Conrad Chuang
TakeTurns vs Email
What’s the carbon footprint of your email-driven external collaborations?

TakeTurns improves how you collaborate on files and documents with people outside your organization. Our goal is to increase productivity and free everyone from those long and confusing email threads that are the hallmark of email-driven external collaboration. 

But what if I told you our approach to external collaboration has a positive impact on your carbon footprint as well? 

In this blog post, we estimate the CO2e, carbon dioxide equivalent or carbon footprint, of email-driven external collaborations, and we identify some of the key drivers. The reason why we’re focused on email is that it continues to be the primary tool for professionals that need to collaborate with people outside their organization. And finally, we close with a quick overview of how TakeTurns does things differently. 

One of the main reasons why we put this post together is that the environment, and the impact we have on the climate, are increasingly important concerns, especially as countries have broken temperature records across the globe in 2022. And as organizational stakeholders–investors, customers, suppliers, and employees–have become more interested in understanding the sustainability of an organization’s operations with regard to the environment. That, along with societal (or social) and governance factors, is part of a larger focus called ESG (intro), which aims to help everyone understand how organizations manage risks and opportunities around sustainability issues.

Email’s surprising carbon footprint

ACM estimates computing represents somewhere between 1.8% to 3.9% of global carbon emissions. People spend a lot of time on email (the average full-time worker spends 2.6 hours per day), so we can safely assume it’s a key contributor to that overall figure. 

But just how big of an impact does email have? 

In 2010, Mike Berners-Lee, author of How Bad Are Bananas, estimated that the carbon cost of an individual email was between 4g and 50g CO2e. The higher-cost emails were ones with “long and tiresome attachments.” These findings were echoed in 2019 by VerbraucherService Bayern (VSB), who estimated that a typical email had a footprint of 10g CO2e, or about the same footprint as a disposable plastic bag. Emails with attachments of at least 1MB were at least twice the cost at 20g CO2e. And in 2022, The Carbon Footprint of Everything, based on new research from Berners-Lee, reported that the carbon cost of an email had fallen and was now somewhere between 0.3g and 26g CO2e. As it was in 2010, the more complex the email, the greater the carbon load.

CO2e in grams 2010 2019 2020
Basic 4 10 0.3
Complex 50 20 26

But setting aside the specific figures, we should probably ask why, or for what purpose, are so many employees spending so much time wrangling so much email

What we’ve observed is that for many professionals, much of the time they spend on email is in service of external collaborations. Usually, work on documents and files the professional has with people outside the organization–e.g., customers, partners, suppliers, etc. So while Berners-Lee and others have good technical news about email, i.e., the carbon cost is falling, the bad news is that the very design of email-driven external collaboration ensures that the environmental impact will always be high.

Email-driven collaboration = more email = more CO2e

It’s easy to see why external collaborations have a higher carbon footprint. After all, an external collaboration involves multiple participants, and more participants mean more emails. And more email means more CO2e.

Imagine you have a team of three negotiating a contract with a team of two at your client. The very nature of the work means nearly every exchange will be those complex emails (26g CO2e) and include multiple attachments (e.g., contracts, exhibits, annexes, etc.).

Since you have five total participants, assuming everyone replies in the thread (to keep all the messages together), every email exchange will result in five copies across all the inboxes and sent mail. Now, let’s say that over a couple of weeks, you perform 20 rounds of negotiations. In each round, each team sends one and only one email for that round. (Typically, we’ve seen many more but let’s keep the math simple).

That means the collaboration looks a bit like this:

People participating from your team 3
+ People participating from your client 2
= Total Participants 5
x Number of revisions 20
x Number of emails sent per revision 2
= Total emails exchanged 200
x CO2e per complex email (g) 26g
= Total Carbon Footprint of Negotiation (g) 5,200g
Carbon footprint per participant 1,040g

Or when it’s all said and done, the email part of this negotiation, would have generated about 5.2kg CO2e in system costs. That is about the same load as driving eight and a quarter miles (or thirteen kilometers) in an average gas-powered car (630g CO2e per mile). 

Replying all with “unnecessary” emails

But let’s think a bit more about the aforementioned negotiation, why one email for each party in each round? 

We simplified it to two emails because, in email-driven external collaborations, it’s common practice to send a short email to acknowledge receipt. Or send what some call “unnecessary emails.” 

What’s an unnecessary email? Back in 2019, OVO Energy, a UK-based energy company, made a splash when they estimated that if Britons sent one less “Thank you” email a day, it would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year, or the equivalent of 81,152 flights to Madrid. OVO even went as far as to create a top ten list of the content found in “unnecessary” emails.

Top 10 most 'unnecessary' emails:

  1. Thank you
  2. Thanks
  3. Have a good weekend
  4. Received
  5. Appreciated
  6. Have a good evening
  7. Did you get/see this?
  8. Cheers
  9. You too
  10. LOL 

OVO’s findings mirror our product management team’s analysis. In email-driven external collaborations, they’ve found that, on average, about a third of the email traffic in collaborations was comprised of this so-called “unactionable” content. 

But let’s take a step back and consider these messages from within the context of our aforementioned negotiation. Are these “unnecessary” messages actually necessary? After all, emailing “Received” (#4) might be the only way to acknowledge receipt of the other party’s email and to affirm that it’s now your team’s turn to work. Without these necessary “unnecessary” emails, the other party won’t know if you got the message. Being seen as inattentive, at best, or unresponsive, at worst, can create friction with the external teams you’re working with.

While we might seek some consolation in the fact that an email with just “thanks” should be one of those “basic” emails (0.3g CO2e). The reality is that participants in email-driven external collaborations almost always “reply-all” to the entire thread (the main reason is that they’re using the subject line to keep all the emails grouped together). That means the very small message “Thanks” is appended to the entire email exchange and then sent onward to everyone. 

That all but guarantees that these necessary “unnecessary” emails fall into the “complex” category (26g CO2e). Worse, it’s obvious many of us feel compelled to acknowledge the acknowledgments creating more copies, clutter, and more carbon. Otherwise, responses such as “You too” (#9), which are clearly responses to “Have a good weekend” (#3) or “Have a good evening” (#6), would not be on OVO Energy’s top ten list. 

Lingering attachments = recurring carbon costs

If we consider what people are sending in those email-driven external collaborations, they’re almost always emailing around documents and files. Historically, people downloaded those documents to their local hard drive. Today, many people keep those documents “ in the cloud,” (but that doesn’t always mean cloud file storage!) Estimates peg the carbon cost of storing a gigabyte in the cloud for a year at somewhere between 1 kg - 2 kg CO2e (1g - 2g CO2e per megabyte). 

While some professionals will eventually save these attachments to folders in Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, or Google Drive, others just leave the files in their inboxes. The reason is that today’s cloud-based commercial email offerings, such as the ones from Microsoft or Google, have storage quotas large enough to make it feel as if there is never any need to clean out your email inbox. The good news about these large quotas is that no one has to perform annoying tasks (e.g., creating .pst archives). The bad news is that it encourages hoarding and digital clutter. People end up keeping way too many files than they sensibly should. 

For an individual user, this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. After all, estimates are that the typical office document (Word, Powerpoint, Excel, etc.) is around 1.5 megabytes. Or if one sends an email with three attachments, a contract in Word, an exhibit in PDF, and a schedule in an Excel spreadsheet, the annual carbon cost of leaving that message with attachments in your sent mail is 9g C02e.

But, if these documents are part of an email-driven external collaboration, the system cost is higher. Revisiting our five-participant, twenty-round negotiation, those three attachments will be copied eleven times every time we share a new version. Using the same number of rounds (20) and emails exchanged per round (2) we end up with an annual carbon cost of 1.8 kg for the whole collaboration. 

People participating from your team 3
+ People participating from your client 2
= Total Participants 5
x Number of revisions 20
x Number of emails sent per revision 2
= Total emails exchanged 200
x Attachments per email 3
x megabytes per attachments 1.5MB
CO2e of storing a megabyte in the cloud for a year 2g
Carbon cost of storing attachments in the inbox for a year 1,800g

Setting aside the questions around security, do we really need to be keeping a copy of every version of every document that was exchanged during the negotiation–especially after the negotiation is over?

TakeTurns is a lower carbon approach

TakeTurns approaches external collaborations in a different way. Instead of collaborating through email, you and your counterparts use TakeTurns as a shared collaboration space. Parties load the files and documents they’re working on into the platform. As revisions are made, those are uploaded into TakeTurns so history and versioning can be maintained. Questions, comments, acknowledgments, and even well-wishes for the evening or the weekend– are all made through the built-in collaboration chat. In this way, TakeTurns becomes the place everyone goes to get everything they need for that collaboration. Moreover, this centralization (as opposed to email-driven distribution) is how TakeTurns reduces the CO2e expended when collaborating with parties outside your organization. 

To see how, let’s revisit our eleven-participant, twenty-round collaboration and think about how it works in TakeTurns.

Basic emails and nothing “unnecessary”

As we mentioned previously, our hypothetical collaboration led to the exchange of 200 emails, when an email-driven external collaboration approach is taken, these emails need to be a higher complexity and higher footprint variety (26g CO2e) that Berners-Lee described in his latest book. 

While TakeTurns does send emails, for users of our platform, our emails are simple notifications. Similar to the notifications one might receive from Google Drive or Microsoft Sharepoint. That means each email received by all eleven participants in our hypothetical collaboration is of that basic, low-footprint variety (0.3g CO2e). Or even if TakeTurns were to send the exact same number of emails (200), the carbon footprint of our approach is ~1% of the current email-driven standard.

Moreover, when we think about those so-called “unnecessary” emails (which are actually necessary for external collaborations). TakeTurns users never send them. When you end your turn and pass control to the other party, you can be assured that TakeTurns has informed them that the collaboration is ready for their input. There’s never any need to acknowledge or request an acknowledgment that the other party has received the materials. And, if you want to provide well wishes for the weekend or evening, you can always use TakeTurns’ built-in collaboration chat to send messages which has a negligible carbon cost.

Ephemeral storage automatically reduces your footprint

In our example above, we illustrated how all those documents attached to all those emails could result in an additional carbon cost. Especially if individuals are not that diligent about cleaning up their inboxes on a routine basis and deleting emails and attachments that are no longer relevant. 

Unlike email, TakeTurns does not automatically assume you want to save every message you ever received (and all their attachments) forever. In fact, TakeTurns views the storage used by the collaboration as ephemeral. When you wrap up or close your collaboration. TakeTurns provides all collaboration participants a period of time (the grace period) in which one can download all the final versions of the files and document and/or a complete archive. After the grace period is over, all the files are deleted. Not only does this save everyone’s inbox from getting too crufty, TakeTurns zeros out the carbon cost of the collaboration.

Get started today

TakeTurns brings structure, security, and transparency to your collaborations—with a lower carbon footprint. With TakeTurns, you and your parties will know whose turn it is to work, track the full history, and maintain confidentiality. Learn more in our Help Center or follow us on LinkedIn and YouTube. And when you’re ready for chaos-free collaboration: Try TakeTurns for free.

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