Debate: WWF’s New Unprintable File Format

Here’s an idea that is either genius or dumb: the campaigners at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have created a new PDF-like file format that has one crucial difference — you can’t print it out. The three-letter file extension is, of course, .wwf.

The first part of the rationale is straightforward. Around the world we use 1 million tonnes of paper every day, says WWF, adding:

“Expanding production and pulp wood harvesting threatens some of the last remaining natural forests and the people and wildlife that depend on them. The world’s paper hunger also significantly contributes to climate change.”

So using less would be good, they say. You need to install free software to create wwf documents, but most PDF readers will open them. The idea was dreamed up by WWF in Germany and released in December.

Predictably, the print industry is not remotely pleased.

But it raises a few issues for me too. It smacks of the worst elements of digital rights management and could be seen to suggest that WWF doesn’t think you are bright enough to make your own choices on printing.

You might also argue that if you use paper that has been produced from sustainably managed forests that you are actually helping maintain trees by printing. WWF launched a site called Check your paper recently, where you can check on the provenance of your paper.

Lastly, I haven’t seen any convincing evidence one way or the other, but presumably if you stare at a document long enough on your computer, the electricity you’ll have burned would result in emissions greater than that of the paper you could have printed.

WWF say that no one is forced to use the format and the project has been useful in raising awareness.

Julia Young, manager of WWF UK Forest and Trade Network said:

“The recent launch of the ‘Save as WWF – Save a Tree’ initiative, centred around a new WWF file format, has received attention on and offline and it’s fair to say that the campaign launch did not fully communicate our organisation’s global policy on paper use. WWF supports responsible use of paper, and is not against all paper use.

“The challenge remains to make use of paper more sustainable and equitable, and WWF remains fully committed to working with business to achieve this.”

So genius or dumb? I’m leaning towards the latter.

Copyright The Guardian. All rights reserved.

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  • GlobalCiti

    I often wonder about the greater debate of paper vs. electronics. There are all these electronic book readers available on the market now and supposedly it’s eco because it’s cutting down on printing paper, but what about the energy consumed to power those devices? I’m not so sure. However, it looks as if everything is going digital so really we should be focused on renewable energies to power our paper-free devices.

  • http://www.visionofearth.org Ben Harack

    I’d argue that the future of media is looking to be mostly digital. Paper will continue to be around, just in far less use. I like the idea of the wwf format. I would like it more if perhaps, it made the viewer ask you an extra question before you printed it, rather than make it impossible to print. As a computer scientist I also doubt that it is ‘impossible’ to print. It will just be an extra technical step that will stop a lot of people from being able to. This might be an interesting consciousness-raising initiative. Sending a wwf document would be a strong signal that you don’t think the document should be printed (for whatever reasons). I can think of a couple instances where I might find this useful.

  • http://satoyamaspirit.org Alan Zulch

    I like the novelty and consciousness-raising potential of a wwf document, but on the other hand if it were actually to take hold I may well be frustrated at not being able to print (particularly because I have to select “Print” on my system to “print” as a PDF, my preferred method).

    The really interesting thing to me, though, is that this shines a certain light on how wedded we are to adopting technologies that are convenient (and rejecting those that aren’t, even if they’re “better” for the environment). What does this say about our willingness to change our ways?

    If we think not being able to print at our leisure is a pain, what about not having trees at all? If the wwf format makes the recipient reflect at all about consumption habits, then it has served its purpose as a learning tool. I’m not staying up late being worried that it will be widely adopted.

    Lastly, it is also interesting to drill down on our assumptions of the future vis-a-vis paper or digital. If we think the future will only be more of the same endless technological innovation, then moving to digital only makes sense. But for me, I’m not getting rid of my paper books. Indeed, if anything I’m adding to my collection, not just because I prefer having the real thing in hand but also because I want something to read when the infrastructure required to support digital devices becomes unreliable, at best, in the coming years of global energy descent.

  • Tony

    There is also a question of exclusion that needs to be addressed. Some people find it difficult to look at a compter screen for a prolonged period of time and others find it easier to read hard copy than soft copy. If you send a .wwf documet to these groups then the choice you are giving them is to try and read it on screen, even if it causes them discomfort, or just not read it at all. .wwf sounds like a good awareness-raising initiative, but it would be more practical if it prompted the reader to think about the environmental costs of printing out the document when they press ‘Print’ by, for example, taking the reader to a WWF webpage highlighting facts about the impact of printing and the paper industy. The same page could also offer tips on how you can save paper and money by encouraging doubled-sided prnting and printing in greyscale, which would also help to save the reader money.

  • marknotaras

    Definitely agree that an extra question popping-up on screen before printing could really ram home the message without disadvantaging people who really need to print information.

    Globalciti’s point about paper v electronics is also a good one. Paper can ultimately be a renewable resource when harvested and recycled in a smart way. Alternatively, precious rare earth metals for our disposable i-gadgets are from places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not only are these non-renewable but they are most likely harvested in ways which are both destructive to the environment and the communities that get paid the bare minimum so that we can remain connected. I like the way the WWF pushes boundaries and would hope that it moves towards issues of greater impact such as how green are electronics devices are. Would any of us, including environmental activists, be prepared to give up these products if we knew how much destruction they caused? Or does someone have to pay the price for trying to save the earth, ironically?

    Incidentally Greenpeace does have a Green Guide for Electronics in which Apple performs better than microsoft for example:

    http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/toxics/electronics/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/

  • Samb73

    I only scanned this article, and was about to move on after thinking – “Mmm, interesting concept. Good on WWF” It is like Earth Hour that draws attention to how much energy we consume – especially at night with lights left on, often unnecessarily. In the grand scheme of things it is like a gnat on a gnu – but the gnat does serve a purpose and the gnu is ultimately aware of it – especially if they are in large enough numbers. All that to say, Damian Carrington’s final comment and assessment is disappointing. It is just a very weak ending but also a shame that is not more constructive and helpful towards such creative thinking and actions.

    • The Beez Speaks

      It’s a DUMB concept in any sense of the word. Forcing people never gives you much sympathy, let alone “awareness”. It’s like deflating the tires of a car to raise “awareness”. I don’t like it, so I used it a lot at the office. What it did is that it infuriated people who needed those papers at a meeting – and they couldn’t print it. When asking for their awareness levels there was not a single one being more “aware”, other that they would never donate another dime to the WWF again. “OK” you may argue “You weren’t using it properly”. Well, may be, but nowhere it is written that it may only be used properly. People like me – and everywhere around the world – may use it (within the terms of use) to prank and nag their neighbors, friends, customers and collegues. What good is that to your cuase? Ill-informed initiative, which was BTW only launched as a publicity campaign – not an awareness campaign. They said themselves!