Save as WWF? No, thanks!

Update Dec 7th, 2010: after reading this page, please also read Don’t Save As WWF. This is the really green format! for alternatives to .WWF

Update Jan 14th, 2011: No peace for the SaveAsWWF campagin

On November 30, 2010, the German section of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in order to raise awareness about a real, serious threat to the environment, has proposed a really dumb solution that I urge everybody to avoid, for at least two reasons.

We all know that forests are essential fo the good health of our planet. That is a real, urgent and serious issue of the first order. As the WWF itself says, “about 13 million hectares of forest disappear each year, an area the size of Greece”. However, in order to at least reduce the size of this problem, WWF Germany invites everybody (the bold is mine) “to stop unnecessary printing and to encourage a new awareness about the use of paper, we’ve developed a new, green file format: WWF. A format that can’t be printed out. A simple idea that saves trees”.


So from now on if we care about forests our slogan should become “Save as WWF, save a tree”. Before explaining why this particular solution is really dumb, let me make one thing clear: the problem that WWF is talking about is a real and serious one. I’ve known myself secretaries that, instead of just writing “you’re all invited to the All Staff Meeting that will be held next thursday at 10:00am” would write the same words in one PowerPoint color slide and send it to the whole company. And I’ve even known the top managers that would regularly print such slides to read them… so yes, the problem is real. Let’s now look at why this solution is wrong.

File formats are alphabets

Everybody that uses computers should really know by now that file formats are exactly like alphabets. One of the main reasons why we can communicate among ourselves or with past and future generations is exactly that alphabets:

  • have no secrets
  • everybody can use them to create any kind of document, with any kind of pen or software
  • are in the smallest possible number and remain almost unchanged across the centuries

Imagine the mess if any generation created a new shape for all the letters of each alphabet and all existing documents had to be rewritten using the new alphabet and you’ll start seeing why creating new alphabets “just because I can”, is a dumb idea. If instead of traditional alphabets you mess with file formats is the same problem, just immensely bigger, considering how many files our civilization creates each year. If you don’t believe it, stop whatever you’re doing and read how file formats can be used to favor (or hamper) innovation, active citizenship and really free markets. Alternatively, search online for “digital dark age” and then ask WWF Germany how many guarantees there are that this “format” of theirs will still be readable in 10, 20 or 50 years from now.

Certain file formats hurt the environment

There’s another reason why nobody should “Save as WWF” and it’s even more relevant for environmentalists. Everybody who cares about the environment cannot ignore anymore that digital technology has a huge carbon footprint and that most of that damage is done before one even starts using it, in the manufacturing phase. Consequently, one of the best ways to reduce pollution when (as in this case) personal computers are involved is to extend as much as possible their useful life.


However, for several reasons explained in the links below, supporting only proprietary operating systems makes the problem worse. Such systems change every few years. For purely commercial reason they are made in many ways, including the creation of new but unnecessary file formats, incompatible both with previous versions of the same products and with older computers. The end result is that many people, in order to keep using their own files, are forced to dump computers that are still perfectly working, yet highly polluting. In other words, proprietary software pollutes a lot!.

The unnecessary printing that WWF (and I!) want to fight is caused by the huge diffusion of computers in home and offices. This is a fact, not an invitation to give up computers! We all wasted much less paper when it was harder to create documents.

However, the best, if not the only way to seriously reduce the size of computer-generated environmental damage is to promote large scale adoption of Free Software and to encourage trashware, that is refurbishing old computers with Free Software to keep them useful and away from the landfills. But this is possible only if people, starting from environmental activists, stop now to generate file in any format that is not usable with Free Software.

In spite of all this, as of December 3rd, 2010, the official “Save as WWF, Save a Tree” website says that this “green” format…is only usable with some version of Mac OS, will soon be usable with some versions of Windows… but no mention of Linux, which is the most environmentally conscious operating system around.


Until this changes, I will refuse to use any .WWF file I get, exactly because I care for the environment and this forces me to not use formats that aren’t usable on all computers, especially old ones. If and when .WWF will become usable on Linux, I will continue to refuse it because file formats are like alphabets. There are already too many file formats in the computing world and I really see no reason for another one… like this. WWF and anybody else concerned about the environment should fight unnecessary printing, but also dump .WWF and promote in its place the OpenDocument format. That is a much more friendlier with the environment, because it can keep away from the landfills on computers so old to have 128 MB of RAM.

Update 2010/12/04 18:30: as it was 100% obvious from the moment of the initial announcement, the WWF “unprintable” format is very easily printable. It is still a format to refuse period, for all the reasons explained here.

Update 2010/12/09: My suggestion is that WWF simply drops the software/file format of all this campaign entirely, and leaves/recycles the icon and logo as something that everybody puts in their files to mean “please save trees, don’t print”, in whatever formats they use.

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43 thoughts on “Save as WWF? No, thanks!

  1. Brandon Lozza

    Not a bad article but you’re wrong on one point. Keeping old hardware running doesn’t help the environment. It’s a hard balance to make. My solution is to give old hardware to someone who doesn’t already own a computer. People who do own computers should keep upgrading them simply because of this fact: Cpu cycles per watt.

    The old computers can go to people who don’t have a single computer. Then they should eventually upgrade and give their old computer to someone else.

    As your computer ages, it becomes less green because of cpu cylces per watt. A Pentium 3 might only use 100 Watts, but my Quad core uses 125 watts and can process a hell of a lot more information than the Pentium 3. If you compare on a basis of cpu cycles per watt, your pentium 3 is a horrific waste of electricity. However, to avoid the landfill you donate your old pc to the poor or unfortunate who don’t own them.

    I believe my solution and my analysis are sound.

    1. marco Post author

      Brandon,
      first of all, in order to definitely prove that I am wrong on that point, you should read the two different links I provided about the embodied energy and digital footprint of digital technology. They say exactly the contrary, so you should prove wrong the detailed arguments of those authors. This does NOT mean that you are completely and always wrong, and will always be as technology progresses! It only means that it takes much more analysis than what you described in your reply to get to a definitive conclusion, assuming there is only one definitive conclusion. In the meantime, better be careful and avoid consumerism, that is bad for environment whatever you buy without a real need.

      Secondly, and even more important: I know very well that donating old computers to people who can’t afford it is an excellent thing at the environmental, social and any other level. See the link to trashware that I provided. But in many cases those computers are useful only if the people who get them aren’t forced by sheer ignorance (in the best case, as this .WWF thing is) to use file formats that aren’t usable on old computers, because they require software that won’t run on them.

    2. Richard Chapman

      A Peterbilt 18 wheeler will carry a lot more groceries than a Smart Car will, but most people don’t need to carry more groceries than a Smart Car will hold.

      1. marco Post author

        Has anybody calculated how much coal is dumped into the atmosphere just to keep on antivirus running?

        Hi Edmundo,

        Somebody did a similar calculation: the carbon footprint of email spam (most of which is from infected Windows computers). I don’t find the link right now but the result was equal to LOTS of cars running in the streets, so not negligible at all.

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  3. JOe T.

    Being that Linux is in 3rd place among the big 3 consumer operating systems, reaching out to the systems with broader implementation is likely to have a bigger impact. Yes, the fundamental argument that everyone concerned about the environment should switch to Linux (or at least preserve old computers by finding a use for them running Linux) is ideally correct. But impractical.

    i’m not arguing in favor of the WWF format. Frankly i think it’s simply a bad approach in general, based more on self-promotion and vanity. From an initial read of the FAQ about it, the file is a finalized document image like PDF, with printing disabled in the document viewer. Great, except from the standpoint of an IT administrator, PDF is not the primary format used for document exchange or storage. In my experience (and to my annoyance), it’s not even used that often when it’s appropriate to do so. This raises the issue of social engineering: you won’t get people to adapt the way they manage computer documents just by introducing a new format they need to remember to use and understand how it works. If you want to adapt people’s thinking about printing, it needs to be set at the operating system or network admin level: restrict/limit printing of any document, not just one particular format only viewable in a particular application that does nothing more than block the print function.

    1. marco Post author

      Yes, the fundamental argument that everyone concerned about the environment should switch to Linux (or at least preserve old computers by finding a use for them running Linux) is ideally correct. But impractical.

      JOe, and all readers,
      please note and do check by yourself in all my articles about file formats one important fact: I never demand universal/mandatory adoption of Linux and Free Software, period. Because of course it would be impractical, and also wrong or unnecessary in many cases. But I demand universal, mandatory adoption of really open file formats, because they are what forces people in many case to use only some software and, very often, to buy new hardware powerful enough to run that software.

  4. whitetiger

    Uh….you do know that wwf format is just a pdf file with the no-print flag set right?

    hardly proprietary.

    1. marco Post author

      Whitetiger,
      Yes, do I know very well what the WWF format is, as the fact I immediately added the link to how to “crack” it proves. But this doesn’t change anything of what I wrote. First, please re-read the part (link included) about the fact that too many formats without a reason only creates problems. Secondly, of course I know it, knowing file formats and teaching about them is one of my job skills. But the general public knows practically nothing about these issues and can fall in this stupid campaign. So it is important to explain to them all the reasons why this is wrong AND the fact that if environmentalists really have to mess with file formats, they should attack those that create much more environmental damage than unnecessary printing (which must stop anyway, as I said, WWF simply adopted out of ignorance a really stupid way to fight it).

  5. Tom

    I disagree. The unnecessary printing (and therefore paper waste) is caused by people. Whether Luddites, or simply “computer illiterate,” I’ve known more paper wasters who do not own computers than who do. For example, I worked for years in a liquor store and one of my responsibilities was to create the POS placards. The owner of the store did not use a computer, so I had to print a copy to give him. At that point, he would take the proof to the copy machine and use a half dozen or so sheets of paper resizing and relaying out the sign. I would then have to make the changes, and start the whole process again. I also worked at a company who’s CEO had their secretary print out all their emails. They would then respond to the email using a separate, specially designed, form. The secretary would then have to print a copy of the sent email so the bosses would know the email was sent.

    Ignorance has a greater environmental impact than which of a dozen formats I chose to save my documents in.

    1. marco Post author

      “The unnecessary printing that WWF (and I!) want to fight is caused by the huge diffusion of computers in home and offices. This is a fact, not an invitation to give up computers! We all wasted much less paper when it was harder to create documents. ”

      I disagree. The unnecessary printing (and therefore paper waste) is caused by people

      Of course it’s people who push the “PRINT” button. What my statement above means is that computers give people many more opportunities to do unnecessary printing.

      Ignorance has a greater environmental impact than which of a dozen formats I chose to save my documents in

      If you are talking of documents that you will never share with others, do as you prefer. But if you (or anybody else, of course) send to other people documents in formats that can only be viewed or printed with newer computers, that is an act with a very big environmental impact. Because you force or induce others to replace their computers with newer ones.

  6. Anonymous

    My personal favorite for documents is Rich Text Format (RTF). It’s an old format that approximates the house formats of modern word processors, but is not proprietary and can be opened by a wide variety of programs. Then again, I have rather little experience with Macs.

    1. Wol

      Actually, rtf is NOT an “old approximation to a word processor format”. It’s very up-to-date, revised regularly by Microsoft.

      And it’s basically the .doc format dumped in text form rather than binary.

      So it’s very proprietary, and very tied to Microsoft, and updated regularly in lock-step with Word. Oh – and the documentation (for the current version) is a pain in the neck to obtain and use.

      Cheers,
      Wol

  7. Frans Reitsma

    Going green should be focused on promoting smartphones; Linux is included via the Android platforms. Most people do not need a micro computer for their day to day activities. But for communication with the rest of the world a (mobile) telephone is the minimal they should have.

  8. Chethan S.

    Rather than working so hard to create a new format which obviously everyone would not have in their PCs/Macs by default, they could have developed an add-on for existing office suites. An add-on which could specify document permissions easily(to be more specific, deny printing capability), thus restraining the PDF file from being printed.

  9. Eric

    Trees for paper come from tree farms. Just like every other type of farm, as soon as the tree is cut down for paper (or lumber or anything else) they are immediately replanted. These old growth and virgin forests that the wwf are so concerned about are cut down for other reasons (Cattle farming, corn etc). I claim Bullshit on the whole damn thing.

  10. Chad

    Just imagine how many hectares of trees we could save each year if we stopped printing what I believe is the single largest waste of paper on the planet: newspaper. A vast number number of people will only read it once and toss it. For archival purposes, a few copies should be printed of each daily run to augment digital storage.

    Second to this waste is magazines. Thanks to doctor’s offices, the life-span of a magazine might be lengthened to a few years, but most all end up in the trash can.

  11. Hans Bezemer

    Proof that the WWF was deliberately out to frustrate less savvy users (Translated from German):

    That’s what it’s all about. Of course you can specify that a PDF cannot to be printed. However, many people are not familiar with this feature. But those who are not computer savvy should be made aware of their choices.

  12. Grishnakh

    Not only is this file format a dumb idea, but the idea that we need to kill trees to make paper is utterly stupid, and the result of widespread corruption. Hemp would make much better-quality paper than tree pulp, and hemp also grows far faster than trees, yet hemp is illegal because the timber companies managed to get it banned along with marijuana decades ago.

    Instead of encouraging people to save trees, maybe we should try to waste as many resources as possible. Then, human society will collapse, most humans will die off, and then the environment can recover on its own in a few centuries, while humans go extinct due to their stupidity, greed, and corruption.

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  16. Tracyanne

    quote:: In spite of all this, as of December 3rd, 2010, the official “Save as WWF, Save a Tree” website says that this “green” format…is only usable with some version of Mac OS, will soon be usable with some versions of Windows… but no mention of Linux, which is the most environmentally conscious operating system around. ::quote

    In actual fact it’s saying software to create files in this “format” is only available for Macs, and will be so, eventually, for Windows.

    A further fact is that these, so called, WWF files are trivially created (and read, and even printed) on almost any operating system, and certainly Linux Mac and Windows, without the WWF’s silly plugin.

    All on requires is Open Office.org (Export to PDF) or the PDFCreator pseudo Printer plug in.

    In either, you simply select the Disable Functions radio button, and within that section select the [disable] Print checkbox, supply an encryption passphrase and save.

    The file will need to be renamed, as the (final) file extension will always be “pdf”, no matter what you enter in the file name.

    A very simply modification to PDFCreators GUI (a fork perhaps – no I’m not recommending one), would provide the simplified style of GUI that these turkeys have created for their WWF “format” plugin.

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  18. Lawrence D’Oliveiro

    This whole paper-conservation thing is just silly. Nobody is cutting down Amazon rain forests to make paper—tropical hardwoods make lousy paper.

    Paper is made from trees grown on tree farms specifically for that purpose. They are fast-growing trees that reach maturity quickly. And mature forests are not carbon sinks.

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  20. ednabag

    The WWF message is misleading. The best (only way) of removing CO2 from the air is by tree growth. The trees store the CO as carbon. When trees ar cut the carbon stays locked, when pupled and made into paper its still locked, its becomes unlocked as it degrades, (in landfill this could take 145 years and still only 50% is released).
    The thing is paper is derived from managed forrest, for every tree cut 3 are put back, trees (softwood) take 35 years to grow, the older they get the less CO they reduce. New trees remove more CO2, so its in our interests to increase forrestry. In western europe it has increased 30% since the 40′s. As a general rule 50% of the tree when cut
    is carbon (486kgs carbon in a tonne), to work out how much this represents in CO2 removed, x by 44 and divide by 12.
    Defforrestation I agree is bad, but by reducing the requirement for timber, forrestry will be cleared and lost to farming (the rainforrest problem, not paper), as the land use is required to make profit. If you think on rainforrest clearance, you will see this is true.
    This doc is fromEU will hopefully show why paper and timber is not the demon its claimed to be.

    http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/sectors/wood-paper-printing/files/ccmreport.pdf

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  25. Landon

    I think you’re missing the point.

    It’s supposed to raise more awareness of the issue, rather than solve it.

    1. marco Post author

      Landon,
      First of all, the original triumphant propaganda from WWF said that it WAS, indeed meant to solve it, when it was evident than it couldn’t (ways to print these “unprintable” files appeared online two days after the first announcement).

      Secondly, if the point was raising awareness, why “Save as WWF” wasn’t immediately included in the official WWF “save paper” tips, and still isn’t, almost one year later? This alone could prove that I’m not the one who’s missing something.

      All this format accomplishes is to raise zero awareness of what the real environmental impacts of software are, more confusion, and embarassments for other branches of WWF (see above). Please (re) read carefully this article and all the others I wrote about this topic. If what they wanted was to raise awareness about unnecessary printing (a goal with which I agree) they would have done much better to a) just release the logo, or word processor templates with it, b) start a real education program on the environmental impact of file formats, c) start campaign to press public administration to replace paper-based procedures with electronic, web-based ones.

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