The download vs the CD – a carbon conundrum!

//The download vs the CD – a carbon conundrum!

The download vs the CD – a carbon conundrum!

The Bristol Music Foundation’s announcement that our own Harvest Festival album and the BMF/Generator album Crushing the Great North South Divide would be launched in IG marked eco-friendly packaging at the Great Escape in Brighton on May 14th prompted some stinging criticism in an email that was forwarded to me, questioning how any CD could be ‘green’. The email asked “did the CD suddenly become environmentally friendly, without me noticing? Here was me thinking that the disk itself is made from plastic, which is made in OIL POWERED furnaces in Asia somewhere, and then shipped across the oceans in a large OIL powered ship, to a dock in the UK where it is unloaded and transferred to a DIESEL powered truck which carries it to the CD pressing plant in PLYMOUTH, where the CD is cut and then placed in the ‘environmentally friendly 100% card case which produces less than 400g of CO2 (forgetting of course to include the emissions from the trucks that ship the card to the factory)’ and then shipped again to BRIGHTON, where it is handed to delegates.” It is a fair point, but in my own opinion the green dilemma is not quite as simple the email makes out.

When we decided to put together the Festival Harvest album, both Luke and me saw this as an album that would be sold as a double CD AND as a download album – because not everyone wants or uses CDs, and not everyone wants or uses downloads.  2010 figures from the record label’s trade body the BPI said that approximately 75% of music was sold in the physical format (almost all CDs with a small proportion of vinyl and music cassette) and 25% was sold as downloads  – and although 98% of singles are now sold as downloads, only 12.5% of albums are sold as downloads ( ).

I have to say that my instinct is that downloads are greener and cleaner – although I have no direct evidence for this.  What I do have evidence for is that CDs sold in card packaging without the plastic jewel case have a substantially lower carbon cost than those sold with a jewel case.  According to Julies Bicycle, the UK music industry’s initiative on climate change, CD packaging is one of the music industry’s largest sources of direct GHG emissions contributing at least 10% of the total emissions. Julie’s Bicycle convened a working group of industry, science and specialist experts to scrutinise the science and the business of CD packaging and come up with some solutions and published recommendations in July 2008 in the report “Reducing the Impact of CD Packaging” with the result that the recording industry could reduce its packaging emissions by up to 95% by switching from the plastic jewel case to card wallet. Research into consumer preferences and manufacturer capacity supported the recommendation to switch from plastic to card. You can find the report here

Undoubtedly the share of music sold and distributed in the digital format is growing year on year and figures from the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI Digital Music Report 2009) say that 19 out of every 20 downloads are illegal – so in reality a lot more music is being distributed in the digital file format now than CDs, even if legal sales on CD still treble digital sales.  And every digital sale must have a (very small) direct carbon cost and I have to say this must be far lower than the carbon cost in producing, packaging and distributing a CD. But, as with CDs, there are indirect environmental costs. There is clearly an environmental cost powering and cooling everything from single servers to giant server farms. But there is also a (probably) much bigger environmental impact from the constant updating of digital devices by consumers.  Whether it is the latest iPod or MP3 player, or the mobile phone upgraded on a yearly basis, or a new lap top with improved storage, processing and software, who hasn’t got a couple of perfectly usable working mobile phones in a draw somewhere, or an unused MP3 player, or an old lap top? A recent study from the RESOLVE group at Surrey University analysed the future impacts of different trends in music buying and listening on material resources. It found that a substantial shift by consumers to digital music files away from CDs did not reduce total material resources below current levels, because of the proliferation in listening devices.

There is a very interesting paper on this topic by Tim Chapmanfrom Cranfield University. Digital Music Behaviour and Music Perceptions of Carbon Impacts explores the common preconception that physical music delivery has a greater carbon impact than that of digital music. It also evaluates the extent to which user perception of carbon impacts influence listening choice. You can read Tim’s paper at (you need to register to download the pdfs on Julies Bicycle’s website. There is no charge).

The email I received also seemed to criticise us for providing free CDs for journalist and people in the music industry. One of the main purposes of the album is to promote a Greener Festival and also promote the twenty eight brilliant new artists on the album – the very best of British emerging talent . Now some journalists and people in the music industry have already embraced the MP3 –  and at least one festival bookers I know says he won’t accept CDs at all – and only wants digital files by email. Conversely, and rather like the way consumers consume in different ways, many journalists and music industry professionals want albums in a physical format: A survey from the (digitally distributed) music industry trade journal CMU reported that “The vast majority of music journalists in the UK are not ready to switch to digital-only promos” and that “75% of those surveyed said their still preferred to receive review and pre-release copies of music in a physical format, ie as a CD.”

So we went for a CD and a download album – and worked with our manufacturer DMS to come up with the best solution for an environmentally friendly CD in 2010. Julies Bicycle Industry Green certification for CD packaging assesses whether a CD packaging format is ‘lower carbon’. To be eligible for Industry Green status the packaging manufacturing process must be found to produce less than 400g greenhouse gas emissions per unit, at least two thirds less than standard CD packging (plastic jewel case, booklet and inlay). In addition, the packaging supplier must demonstrate that they are engaged and committed to greenhouse gas emissions reduction and disclosure

So my own view is that we are a GreenER Festival and what we were hoping to do was produce a greenER  album, but I have to accept this may not be a green album.  So we will be launching Festival Harvest as both a CD and a download album in (the newly green) Brighton. That said,  we are always open to constructive criticism when it is well thought out so if you have any thoughts please do email us at .

Tim Chapman’s study concludes with evidence that more sustainable behaviour by music users could be achieved through positive environmental engagement and action by the music industry and by delivering accurate sustainability information for users to “enable the music industry and music users to understand the real impacts of digital music”.

The greenest solution might be that there is no music produced or distributed at all. But that is something I could never consider.

By |2016-11-01T15:05:53+00:00May 7th, 2010|AGF Blog|