GreenTech LogoIt's actually hard to tell which is more important to end-users - the convenience of downloading their purchased software to get it quickly, or the fact that it's greener to get software that way. In a recent survey we did on this, the majority of our respondents who had already chosen to download software they got from TechSoup said that they did it to get the software more quickly. A number of respondents, however, reported that they did it to be greener.

It very much reminded me of the Forevergeek.com article: Downloading software: being green or just more convenient? which cites some UK-based statistics that find that if the 16 million units of software sold in 2008 had been downloaded instead, there'd be enough electricity saved to power 12,000 households for a year.

Old skool discs by Flickr user churl

From my point of view, there really isn't much controversy there. Downloading the software you get from TechSoup is both quicker and greener. In case it's the environmental case for downloading that is more interesting to you, the big study on that is called: Demonstrating the Benefits of Electronic Software Distribution. It was completed in October 2009 by Accenture and WSP Environment & Energy Consulting and it explores the carbon reductions associated with Microsoft's transition from physical to electronic media software distribution methods.

Here are some of the major findings from the study:

  • Replacing traditional distribution of DVD/CD disc kit software with electronic software distribution (ESD) results in a 91% reduction in carbon emissions.
  • Emissions related to the manufacturing of disks and packaging was the largest contributor to the overall greenhouse gas footprint of physically distributed software (63%). The materials used for disks and packaging include DVDs, plastic tabs, media binders, corrugated boxes, paper, plastic packaging, packing fill, and paper or plastic media sleeves.
  • Emissions from shipping and distribution accounted for 24% of the overall carbon footprint of traditional packaged software.
  • End-of-life recycling activities account for (13%) of the product life cycle. Plastic packaging and the disks themselves are for the most part not recycled.
  • Emissions related to digital distribution were primarily from electricity use. The greenhouse gas footprint will decrease over time with increased data center efficiency. The average file size of Microsoft downloaded software is 667 MB.

The study found that Microsoft Volume Licensing customers can collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to:

  • 9,437 barrels of oil consumed
  • Electricity use of 563 homes for one year
  • Carbon sequestered annually by 922 acres of pine forest

TechSoup's donor partner Intuit also made a concerted effort to switch from traditional packaged software delivery to digital downloads in 2009. They estimate that downloads produce approximately 8 times fewer emissions than packaged software.

In terms of hard costs, the company ended up reducing emissions from reduced packaging by 20% and they reduced supply chain emissions by an additional 10%.

Probably the greenest thing that TechSoup users can do is to download the software you get from us if you have broadband Internet, then save it onto a network volume, cloud storage, or an external hard drive for safe keeping or if you need to reinstall the software. It's however not that much more of an environmental impact if you prefer to store your downloaded software to DVD disc. CDs and DVDs are made from mostly polycarbonate plastic, plus various lacquers and aluminum. They are not terribly toxic, but are also difficult to recycle at the end of their usable lives.

There is a rapid trend among most software companies to move toward electronic delivery rather than traditional boxed products to both save money for everyone concerned and also go a bit easier on the environment.

Photo: churl