What's better for the environment: mailed physical CD for £6, or digital download for £7?
November 30, 2009 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Is it better, environmentally speaking, to buy a physical CD for £6 and have it mailed to me, or to buy a digital copy for £7?

Some of the £6 goes toward manufacturing the CD and transporting it, but the £7 I give to the digital music store pays the wages of their employees, who in turn buy stuff. (Their equipment, rent, etc. gets turned into stuff in the same way.) What if the numbers were £6 physical CD, £12 digital?

In other words, to what extent does raw price (i.e. a proxy for the amount of stuff that your purchase allows other people to buy) matter? If I buy £100,000 of environmentally-friendly stuff, isn't that (approximately) £100,000 of (potentially not environmentally-friendly) stuff that other people can then afford to buy?

If I buy a Prius hoping to help the environment, does it matter how Toyota's employees and suppliers spend their money? Are there any substantive differences across industries, or is a dollar for Toyota more or less equivalent to a dollar for McDonald's?
posted by mstillwell to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
is a dollar for Toyota more or less equivalent to a dollar for McDonald's?

Nearly impossible to answer, as there's too many variables at play. Let's say you're buying a pair of jeans. You could spend amount X with a Pollution, Inc, or X+10 with EnviroFriends, Inc. Sounds easy, right?

But what if EnviroFriends uses slave labor to make their free-range hemp jeans? What if Pollution, Inc. plowed all their profits into alternative jeans research?

McDonald's is evil? Perhaps. Depends on how you define it. I live near one of the Ronald McDonald houses, and I say a little prayer for every Big Mac.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:24 PM on November 30, 2009

I'd buy the CD just to punish them for charging more for downloads. There's no excuse.
posted by rhizome at 5:45 PM on November 30, 2009

This is a weird argument.

The employees are going to get paid no matter what- I don't think amazon.com employees get a bonus for every digital download. Yes, I guess more profits = more employees, but if the people weren't working there, they'd be working somewhere. And if they weren't working anywhere:

a) There'd be more general misery in the world and
b) They'd still have to live and eat somehow, and maybe they would buy crappy factory-farmed fast food instead of organic?

At any rate, I don't think forcing poverty on people you don't know because it could be better for the environment is very defensible, morally.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:49 PM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

Some people I trust recently did this study. It was sponsored by Intel and Microsoft. Turns out downloads are better.
"The Energy and Climate Change Impacts of Different Music Delivery Methods" (pdf link)

The study did not attempt to wrangle with second order economic effects. That sort of thing is tricky but you can do it. The technique is called 'economic input-out life cycle analysis' (EIOLCA). You basically make a big matrix that tabulates what each sector bought from each other sector, using macroeconomic data. Suppose a product made in sector X has component parts made in sectors Y and Z (or alternatively, a service company in sector X spends its profits on things in sector Y and Z). You can piece together the supply chain for products made in sector X by looking at the money going from sector X to sectors Y and Z. Then you figure out the raw environmental impacts e.g. energy use of all of sectors Y and Z (you usually can get macro data like this, it'll just be out of date), and figure out how much of those moved to sector X (a tiny fraction) to make your product of interest. Unfortunately it is a really blunt tool and can't answer a fine-grained question like the one you're posing. If you flip through the study I quoted, you'll see the problem is hairy enough as it is.

You can, however, make broad comparisons across industries, and say that a dollar spent at Toyota is maybe better or worse than a dollar spent at McDonald's. More precisely, you'd care about a dollar spent on the auto sector and on the food service sector. They will be different because the dollar will be spent on purchasing different products from their supply chains. I don't have examples of such studies off the top of my head but if you look up EIOLCA it will be a good place to get started.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:01 PM on November 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

If I buy £100,000 of environmentally-friendly stuff, isn't that (approximately) £100,000 of (potentially not environmentally-friendly) stuff that other people can then afford to buy?

This is sort of the broken window fallacy, but in reverse. The extra pound (or extra 6 pounds) you didn't spend buying the digital download will instead go in to your bank account, which will be loaned out to other customers of your bank to finance other purchases. Even stuffing it under your mattress has the (incredibly small, but still present) effect of decreasing the effective money supply, raising the value of other people's pounds and enabling them to buy more goods.
posted by 0xFCAF at 6:03 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's also an extra pound for YOU to buy eco-goods or what-have-you. Why give them more money if it's the same net spend and you can control where it goes, assuming you want all the money to go on its next-spend on eco-goods?
posted by CharlesV42 at 6:16 PM on November 30, 2009

I concur that there are way too many variables at play for anyone to fully answer this. On a purely selfish (in the literal self-interested sense) economic basis, saving £1 is immediately beneficial to you. Maybe the digital download company saves overhead and the employees of the distributor (or, god forbid, the artist) gets more money, but equally perhaps the staff at the CD distribution centre have really bitchin' healthcare plans and an understanding boss.

I think it comes down to whatever works for you, unless there's a particularly egregious reason why you wouldn't reason — for instance, investing in ExxonMobil or Blackwater (now Xe Services, but a rose by any other name…) might make financial sense, but the moral implications might be too much to stomach. I know that I can get a copy of a novel from Amazon for £8, but if I need it that day, I'd probably be prepared to pay more than that. Similarly, while you can make a panini in the oven at home and have a glass of tap water for maybe £2 worth of raw materials, sometimes you just feel like having lunch and a glass of wine with a friend in a nice restaurant.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 8:51 PM on November 30, 2009

This is impossible to answer in the way you've posed the question, but could you consider other ways of looking at it?

For example, instead of buying a CD or the downloads, drop the same coin in a busker's basket and hang out and listen for a few songs.

Instead of choosing a between spending on a car or fast food, choose neither and walk to a local farmers' market.

Trying to answer these impossible "footprint" type questions by choosing dollars spent between varying degrees of "lesser evils" leads to a phony Whole Foods type of attitude where people think they are being "green" by buying impossibly resource intensive, overpriced goods.

Why not just spend the dough directly on the people who are actually making and creating things in your own neighborhood? The lower you spend on the chain, the fewer variables you will have in answering what impact your dollars are having.
posted by quarterframer at 9:59 PM on November 30, 2009

This is a fantastic question for which I have no good answer.

The question of second order effects of investment vs. spending is also interesting, but I think it is missing the point.
posted by Chuckles at 10:09 PM on November 30, 2009

Environmentally, buying the download is better. C'mon, obviously. Because nothing is being made or shipped or handled. And there's no packaging. This is a no-brainer.

The ridiculously high price of digital downloads has to do with record companies not wanting to undercut their old business model. In time, this idiocy will go away once some record companies start pricing their downloads logically. It has nothing to do with the cost (to the environment or otherwise) of making a CD.
posted by musofire at 6:53 AM on December 1, 2009

Implicit in your question is the assumption that paying more for something is bad (for the environment) as it allows the seller to go and consume more. This is a fallacy since you don't know how the seller will send his money. He might spend it all on windfarms. Likewise, giving the seller less money isn't necessary greener since the seller now may be forced to buy that used 1984 Chevy instead of the 2009 Prius.
posted by chairface at 8:07 AM on December 1, 2009

I was thinking about this some more and I remembered that there is an EIOLCA tool you can play with online. (www.eiolca.net) I've never tried it before but I just fired it up and it turns out that it's really easy to use. In about five minutes I was able to determine that:

$1 million in the "Food services and drinking places" sector produced* 816 megatons CO2 equivalent.
$1 million in the "Automobile and light truck manufacturing" sector produced* 628 megatons CO2 equivalent.

* 1997 data (old data is par for the course in EIOLCA unfortunately)

In other words, in terms of greenhouse gases at least (one of several indicators you can look at), a dollar for Toyota is a little bit better than a dollar for McDonald's. On average. Note that a $20,000 car is much worse than a $2 milkshake, as you would expect.

A few other points.
- You don't know what the seller specifically will spend your money on but you do know what that entire sector tends to spend all of its money on in broad terms. While the specific question is impossible to answer because it's more specific than the data we have, the broader question to me doesn't seem as intractable as other seem to think. Assuming you buy into the EIOLCA methodology, then if we had EIOLCA data on the music retail and web retail sectors (we don't, this is too specific), we could find the price at which the emissions are roughly equalized.
- It's by no means obvious ahead of time that downloads are better than CD's. Downloads need computing infrastructure and while it may be tiny it's non-zero. Personally I don't know that the question is settled, despite the report I linked, because the transition to downloads has all kinds of ripple effects in the economy, like increasing total network traffic, and driving demand for personal music players and hard drives, etc. It is probably safe to say (as the report does) that one download is better than one CD, in isolation. That's as far as I would go.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:05 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

isn't that (approximately) £100,000 of (potentially not environmentally-friendly) stuff that other people can then afford to buy?

Yes. You should quit spending money on anything. Once the cash-based economy collapses, people won't be able to buy gasoline, electricity, manufactured products, or food that's been transported long distances. Total food production will decrease, hospitals won't be able to operate, lifesaving drugs won't be delivered. Many people will die, and the environmental load humans are putting on the planet will be decreased.

Personally, I find this to be a non-optimal solution to helping the environment.

Some of the £6 goes toward manufacturing the CD and transporting it, but the £7 I give to the digital music store pays the wages of their employees, who in turn buy stuff

The employees of the manufacturer and transportation companies will get paid if you spend the £6.

Maybe instead of spending the money, you should donate it to environmental causes. Employees of those causes may be more likely to spend their money on bicycles or locally grown food than on SUVs.
posted by yohko at 5:23 PM on December 1, 2009

Well, according to a prof of mine, the best use of your environmental dollar is supporting lobbying groups that are pushing for tougher environmental regulations. (this a better choice than buying offsets, in his mind, since offsets have issues with free-riders and double-counting.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:34 PM on December 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes. You should quit spending money on anything. Once the cash-based economy collapses, people won't be able to buy gasoline, electricity, manufactured products, or food that's been transported long distances.

Isn't that a good reason to spend all your money as rapidly as possible? It would be a bad idea to be caught with any left when it becomes worthless.

Incidentally, I had email this morning which is looking for partners to expand the research done by Carnegie Mellon that Percussive Paul mentions, apparently the work took a lot of criticism in peer review and more evidence is needed.
posted by biffa at 9:44 AM on January 14, 2010

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