Edouard Nattée on digital pollution: ‘Data is becoming part of the problem’

9 Jan 2020

Edouard Nattée. Image: Cleanfox

Cleanfox CEO Edouard Nattée discusses the growing impact of digital pollution, why it’s set to increase in the future and how we can all take steps to browse the internet in a more eco-friendly way.

We recently spoke to Edouard Nattée, the co-founder and CEO of Cleanfox, a platform that enables users to delete and unsubscribe from unwanted newsletters flooding their mailbox – with a single click.

While the service might sound like it’s aimed at those who can’t bear the sight of an unread email notification, Nattée spoke to us about how Cleanfox was designed to help individuals reduce the carbon footprint that unwanted emails can create.

Prior to setting up Cleanfox and its parent company Foxintelligence, Paris-based Nattée co-founded an e-commerce start-up called Westwing, which went public in September 2018.

After a successful exit, Nattée decided to start Cleanfox to fulfil a business need he once had as a retailer, while helping people to reduce the impact that digital pollution has on the environment.

‘If we set the right practices now for how we handle all traces of data, that might do the trick and condition us to approach data in a more eco-friendly way’

So, what is digital pollution?

Digital pollution is basically the negative outcome of one of the best tools humans have ever created. It’s all of the pollution that is created through the ICT industry. There are two main types: the type that is generated by manufacturing devices, their batteries and running their processes and so forth; then there is all of the pollution that is connected to the energy that is required by those devices and this energy is creating a significant carbon footprint.

That is digital pollution in a nutshell. Digital pollution is the fastest growing carbon emission source in the world and it’s something we all need to care deeply about.

As we enter a new decade, will we begin to see the real impact of digital pollution?

Yes, definitely. If you think of the amount of data that is created, it’s basically doubling every 18 months. That is the trend we’ve seen before 5G has even been rolled out. What’s going to happen after 5G becomes a mainstream technology is that there will be a huge pressure on energy needs.

Even with game streaming, when you look at Stadia and you look at Shadow and everything that is now being prepared by Microsoft and PlayStation, the amount of data and devices is dramatically increasing.

Right now it’s invisible. Tomorrow, it’s not going to be invisible. And it’s easy to tackle the problem, but it’s not going to be easy in 10 years if we don’t start now. If we set the right practices now for how we handle all traces of data, that might do the trick and condition us to approach data in a more eco-friendly way. If we wait 10 years, it’s going to be much more difficult.

What are some ways that people may be contributing to digital pollution without even realising?

There are a few things. Firstly, we have a super-fast obsolescence of materials and devices, each of them with their load of hazardous materials.

Then when you look at energy, there’s two sources of carbon being generated. The first is everything related to storage and the second is related to data transfer. That is everything that is connected to Netflix, or YouTube or the porn industry. Basically anything that would consume a lot of bandwidth will eventually generate a large footprint.

Should we cut back on mindless day-to-day browsing?

Well, every time you’re loading a web page or an app, let’s just say Facebook, you will have a list of small specific events that make your emissions just burst. One would be the automatic playback of videos. That’s one of the worst things. Within five minutes of scrolling, you could be downloading several gigabytes of data, for no reason at all. Browsing in a way that’s not environmentally responsible is something that can generate a massive amount of CO2 emissions.

It probably doesn’t help that so many mobile providers now offer unlimited data. Do you think that’s something that could eventually be taxed?

It’s super hard because it’s going to increase with 5G, that’s for sure. Can it be taxed? Well, my take is that in the next 10 to 20 years, on our tax forms we might see something linked with how much carbon we are using. Someone travelling back and forth between London and New York will not be paying the same tax as someone just staying at home.

Beyond the individual, do you think we could see social media platforms being taxed?

Before we talk about taxes, we should be talking about responsible behaviours. I’ll give you one example. If you take YouTube, there could be a rule where if a video was uploaded and if it’s not seen by more than 20 people, then the video goes onto a different storage that doesn’t require instant availability. If you take newsletters, they could have an expiry date.

When you think of your smartphone, some people are taking 20 to 100 photographs each week, which are saved on the cloud. Google, Apple and other storage providers could introduce algorithms that save important pictures, rather than every single photograph. We need a set of best practices focusing on reducing the amount of data that is created on databases.

With Cleanfox, what is the impact you have made so far?

One thing we do is reduce the amount of emails received by users by up to 20,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. The second thing we have contributed to is making as much noise as we can on digital pollution. That’s as important as the first part. We’ve been shouting everywhere that this is something we can’t ignore.

We offer a free and easy-to-use solution that makes a real impact. We also use this platform to tell people that it’s not possible to have the amazing tool that is the internet, without contributing to one of the biggest problems humanity has ever faced.

Are there other ways that Cleanfox can help people reduce their impact on the environment, beyond deleting emails?

Yes, and the way we do it is super simple. When you look at a mailbox, you have the ability not only to clean out the newsletters, but you can also get a super strong and precise insight on every user and how they can change their behaviour as a consumer.

You can see travel emails, you can see behaviours such as ordering food online, you can list so many behaviours that can be improved and measured in terms of impact. What we want to do firstly is give millions of users a way to instantly reduce their carbon footprint on the silliest source of carbon emission, which is newsletters. The second thing is that we can bring into the hands of each of our users the ability for them to see how they can improve their behaviour as a consumer and reduce their carbon footprint.

Should we be concerned about the increasing number of e-receipts that are being issued?

That’s something we’ve been studying a lot and e-receipts have to be online, for one reason. When you look at the problem of climate change, it’s related to consumption. The only way to measure this on an individual basis is through e-receipts. If all e-receipts are concentrated on someone’s inbox, it provides the ability to measure the impact of each person. When you measure this, you have the opportunity to give everybody more options on how they can reduce their carbon footprint.

We push for e-receipts because without data, you can’t solve problems. If you look at all the big problems that humanity currently has, such as inequality, access to education, poverty and the climate crisis, trying to solve those issues without access to reliable data is just impossible. We believe that these problems can be solved with enough anonymised, secure data on the consumption of each individual.

It’s funny – today data is the first part of the solution to every problem that we have, but if you take data privacy or digital pollution, then data is also becoming part of the problem. Democracy can be improved with the internet, but it can also be destroyed by it. The climate crisis can be solved with the help of data, but the issue can also be drowned in too much data.

Anything else to add?

There are many things you can do to reduce your CO2 emissions. You can travel less. You can eat less meat. You can sell your car. You can do many things, but they all have some downsides, which is often less pleasure for the individual that is making the sacrifice.

Cleaning your inbox is literally painless! If there’s something that there’s no excuse not to do, it’s cleaning your inbox. What’s the worst thing that can happen? That you stop paying Google because you’re no longer over the storage limit?

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic