How Eco-Friendly Is Your Email Provider?

Emails are something we use every day for shopping and work, with the main providers of this service being Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo. Gmail has around 59% of the primary email users, whilst Hotmail/Outlook has 18% of the share and Yahoo has 5% global dominance [1]. Combined this equals an astonishing 82% of the market. With this power you’d like to think these three companies would be supporting friendly initiatives, yet when we looked at Ethical Consumer the mean rating for these three companies was 4.5; when Hotmail was included the rating was about 5.33 [2].

When researching email providers which run on green energy it was hard to find any blog posts or articles so here are outlined some companies we know and with some research into the popular providers we will see which is the best for the environment. It is worth mentioning that whilst only two companies covered run on green energy there are many more out there and over time companies will make a transition. If you know any companies we did not list, let us know. The Ethical Consumer also looks at a few other services however as we have not personally used the sites they mentioned it has been decided to not include them due to unknown parameters. The two companies mentioned both have free plans and are E2EE (End-To-End-Encrypted), both services have premium plans which upgrade the small storage limit and unlock more features.

The first company examined is one based in Germany, called Tutanota. They are a privacy-friendly encrypted email service which relies entirely on green electricity. Tutanota are also an open-source company with clients on Android, iOS and more. In a post first published in 2019 and last updated in 2020 they said “In Germany, the quota of renewable energy is constantly rising. In 2018…38 per cent of electricity used came from renewable sources.” It also mentions that “renewable energy in Germany comes from the following sources: 41% wind energy (onshore), 20% photovoltaic, 20% biomass, 8% wind energy (offshore), 7% hydrodynamic power, and 3% household refuse (recycling)”[3] [4]. Tutanota states that their servers are owned by themselves and hosted in highly secure German data centres. The Ethical Consumer rated Tutanota 14.5/20, with the top service they reviewed getting 15.5, with the next four other getting 14.5.

Another provider is ProtonMail. This company is a privacy-friendly encrypted email service based in Switzerland. Whilst they do run on eco-friendly renewable sources, unlike Tutanota they are not as open about this in a blog or on their site. Based on research the main points are their data centres run on renewables, as mentioned on Reddit and Twitter. When asked about climate change, they responded to Reddit saying:

“Yes, we care about the environment as much as we care about privacy. We look to always choose the most eco-friendly option for our energy needs. As a matter of fact, we’ve used only hydro energy for a long time in our initial datacenter. With time we couldn’t keep the percentage 100% hydro and had to diversify, but we are constantly working towards this direction. Needless to say, all our offices recycle everything we use.” [5]

On Twitter as part of EarthDay in April ProtonMail in a tweet said; “Happy #EarthDay! We are proud that our Frankfurt and Zurich data centres are @ISOstandards 50001 certified and run on 100% green energy. We’re working to further reduce our carbon impact where possible. We care about the environment as much as we care about privacy.” [6]The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an independent, non-governmental international organisation. They have a page about the certification which ProtonMail stated they follow [7].

A honourable mention goes to Posteo, a second German company which was featured in TheGuardian in 2014 [8] . We cannot comment on how their service works from experience or word of mouth. They do not offer a free plan perhaps a negative to some, whilst the two mentioned previously do have small but free plans. They state that “100% green energy from Greenpeace Energy: Posteo is 100% operated with power from Greenpeace Energy, this applies not only for our servers, but also for all of our office space”[9]. Looking at their ethics they also look good with some incentive to encourage their staff to bike to work as they can “…have their bike repaired by a mechanic free of charge”[9]. Posteo received 14.5 (same as Tutanota by the Ethical Consumer).

What we need to address is the elephants in the room, being Google, Outlook and Yahoo. Many of you may know that Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 so why is it rated at 0.5 by the Ethical Consumer under the environmental impact. Without a subscription to their magazine, their reviews arent accessible, but an article by The Verge state that: “Google has been carbon neutral each year since 2007, which means that it offsets the emissions it generates from burning fossil fuels by investing in renewable energy projects or other initiatives that draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into storage. But relying on offsets doesn’t actually wean the company off fossil fuels”[10]. Finally in a blog about Google written by Scott he argues that whilst they were actually carbon neutral, “…carbon neutrality as a concept is flawed for the simple reason if everyone was carbon neutral carbon emissions would still increase. That clearly isn’t neutrality” [11].

One of the reasons behind Gmail’s low rating is because the above mentioned email providers use green energy instead of burning fossil fuels to create energy and use their profits to off-set their emissions. Microsoft is building technology to create energy and solve issues such as their recent study of putting data centres under water to reduce the emissions from air conditioning which is a step in the right direction [12]. However they have more to do yet.

In conclusion all three of these companies run in one form or another on green energy. All three are also advert free and some offer free accounts and all three companies are open source allowing their source code to be audited. Open source allows anyone to verify what a company says is actually true which many claim makes a service more transparent and trustable. With smaller email companies there are charges for more storage, sending more emails per day etc however even with the 500mb storage that ProtonMail gives or the 1GB storage that Tutanota gives (plus they claim to compress emails meaning they take up less space) perhaps a free account could come in helpful. When we have several GBs or upto 15GB with Gmail we might be disincentivized not delete old emails so our inbox might become cluttered. For many of us Gmail, Outlook and Yahoo are all trusted and known. Whilst the three companies mentioned today for might be new names for many readers, they have many eco-attributes that are hard to ignore.

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