Eco-Friendly Fonts Won't Save the Planet

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 22 2014 12:26 PM

Eco-Friendly Fonts Won't Save the Planet

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Fonts won't protect nature.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Strong feelings about Comic Sans aside, most people just don’t think about fonts all that often. Ryman Stationary, a British office supply store, is trying to change that through one of the most foolproof business models ever devised: altruism.

The claim: Using this font—which they’ve named “Ryman Eco”—will reduce your ink usage by 33 percent.

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This comes after a Pennsylvania teenager famously made a bold proposition late last month: Times New Roman costs the government $400 million a year more than if it used Garamond, or 24 percent. That study was soon debunked, but it got many people thinking.

So, is Ryman Eco the new Garamond? And why would a company in a dwindling industry try to get people to use less of its product?

Folks in the printing industry know better.

“At best this is an example of ‘splitting microns’. The cost reduction here is nebulous. At worst, this is a case of ‘greenwashing’ from a dying industry, grasping for relevancy,” said Gregory Walters, president of the Managed Print Services Association, an advocacy group that works on behalf of companies that optimize document output devices.

Essentially, Ryman’s thinking here is: Printing anything at all is better for us than printing nothing. So, we want you to feel good about it while you’re out there dot-matrixing out your to-do lists and inter-office memos. Ryman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

A few years ago, industry giant Adobe tried something similar. It launched something called LeanPrint, a software-only effort to squeeze efficiency with little effort on behalf of the user. Essentially, LeanPrint was designed to “optimize paper and toner usage” by cutting out straggling pages with only a few lines on them, among other features. According to Rob Sethre of Photizo Group, a research and consulting group specializing on the printing industry, it flopped.

Ink is only about 15 percent of the total carbon footprint of a printed page. Despite the rise of e-everything, paper use is prodigious in the United States. Americans still use an average of 10,000 sheets of office paper per year, which is a lot. That number is steadily dropping, but not as ridiculously so as those of us who live in the cloud may be inclined to believe.

But surely all our gadgets have a footprint, too? What’s a climate change crusader to do?

A 2011 Slate analysis calculated that if college students (or anyone who takes a lot of notes) bought an iPad especially for that purpose, they’d actually be a net drain on the environment. A iPad’s life-cycle cost, in the equivalent of virgin paper, is a whopping 7,700 sheets over its expected three-year lifetime. But obviously iPads and other electronic devices can replace much more than just a spiral notebook.

Sethre says: “Better display technologies will help bring about the paperless office. The point is when, not if. The physical delivery of anything has a cost. Electronic delivery doesn't. It’s that simple.” Sethre projects that within the next 10 years or so, it’s “a pretty safe bet” that paper usage will decline by 40-50%. When it comes, the change could be rapid. “Consider analog photography switching to digital. It fell off a cliff in two years.”

But the font won’t have anything to do with the change in the long run.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.

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