The Great Greeting Card Debate

If “paper vs plastic” was the dispute of the 1990s, than “email vs post” could be the dilemma of the 2000s

By Victoria Schlesinger

Prone Christmas trees line the sidewalks. Sometime soon the 2007 calendars will be replaced with 2008’s. Next, the collection of this year’s holiday cards will be gathered up and put away.  

Or maybe not. Maybe you’re among those who dabbled with the idea of replacing traditional holiday paper cards with electronic cards or found your fireplace mantel a little less crowded this year. If that’s the case, you’re not alone.


While the Greeting Card Association reports that Americans buy seven billion greeting cards annually, and on average people in this country receive 20 cards each a year, the greeting card industry has also begun tracking the growing popularity of ecards.

They estimate that some 500 million of the electronic missives are sent worldwide annually, and like paper cards, are most popular during the holidays, particularly in December. This rise in popularity appears to have two origins: a cultural shift toward computers and a concern for the environment in the form of paper consumption.

Robb Waterman, CEO of one of the first ecard sites, which snagged the domain name, said that when his company started in 1995, “We didn’t think about replacing paper cards, but did think of it as environmentally sensitive.” Waterman started experimenting with ecards when he found he couldn’t send photos by email to friends in Europe.

Clearly technology has overcome that limit, and ecard use has only grown.

This December Maureen White, 35, says she received an e-Christmas card from her younger cousin that started out, “To save the postal carriers legs, I have opted to send out an E-Christmas card.  In reality, I have very few of my friends and family’s actual postal addresses these days because I was born in 1980 and us Gen Y’ers are concerned with is speed and convenience.  99% of what I do is on the computer!”

White says, “The card was really nice and had tons of pictures from his life. I'm sure it took him a while to put it together.” Nonetheless the greeting generated some lighthearted heckling from one recipient. Someone on her cousin’s list hit “reply all” with the playful note, “Get a wife and send a real card.”

But according to American Greetings, the largest paper and ecard company in the world, women, men, husbands, young and old are among the two million people paying $13.99 a year to subscribe to the company’s ecard service. Its 30,000 ecards range from still photos, audio-video clips, and the means to create your own card.

That’s what Carolyn Hampton, 45, received this year, “I got an ecard that was actually a link to YouTube. My friend uploaded a video of her three kids.”

Ecard popularity might primarily reflect our increasing dependence on the Internet, but it does have green benefits. A rough back-of-the-envelop calculation finds 7 billion cards equals about 2.5 million trees, although the number varies based on the type and amount of paper used in each card. 

For some, the conservation factor is important. Josie Glausiusz, 42, used ecards to send holiday greetings for the first time this year saying, “It's saving paper,” she says. “Mind you, it takes energy to run your computer, but I'd be using that anyway as it's on pretty much all day for work.”

She also noted that one of her friends chose not to send any paper cards this year and instead gave a sizable donation to Doctors Without Borders. She sent an email to her friends explaining her decision and wished them all a happy and peaceful New Year.

“Basically, I'm happy when any friend remembers me, whether postally or not, so why would I care if someone emails me or sends me a card?” Glausiusz says.

But some people do care and feel strongly that paper cards are a special part of their holiday. “At my house like others, real Christmas cards are often set out on the mantel or some other conspicuous place. That can't be done with ecards,” says David Mitchell of West Marin California.

The paper greeting card industry would concur and stresses that ecards are not replacing the traditional paper card industry—only expanding it.


The artistic ecards from and combined with personal messages can replace the sincerity of the traditional paper cards.

There have been mostly hollow recycling efforts with Christmas cards. At one level, prisoners cut up old cards to "make new ones", and perhaps if you think you are making a prisoner happy by sending his childlike collage, then buy those. At another level, the environmentalist Bill McDonough created a Hallmark card where, because it is plastic rather than paper, its purchase (it is a photo Bill took) includes an envelope in which the recipient sends on the card to Shaw Carpets (a client of Bill's in the eco-industry) to incorporate into its backing for carpets. The American post office seems to be behind this - but nobody know how many cards provide how much carpet underlay. And there is not only the Hallmark plastic travelling to retailers, the buyer's card air-travelling to its recipient, but also the third air-postage to the carpet house. I think sometimes we try too hard to be environmentally right-minded.