Have you ever noticed a phrase on the bottom of your paper statement from your bank or utilities supplier? The one that states something like: “Go greener, go paperless” accompanied by a little line drawing of a tree or other natural symbol? It is likely that you have, as they are a commonplace addition to most paper bills sent nowadays.
The question is: are these statements actually true, or do they perpetuate an assumed truth about e-billing and digital marketing in general?
The paper industry contests these claims, maintaining that they are unproven and misinform consumers. Two Sides North America is a non-profit, organisation committed to representing the interests of the Paper and Print Industry. It has had some success in persuading companies to alter or remove their claims perpetuating the idea that digital communication is more environmentally friendly than paper communication. Phil Riebel, the company’s president, stated that they are pleased with the success of their campaign to date, as most companies are responding to their concerns. In fact, the company so far has managed to convince over thirty companies to alter their practises.
Two Sides North America has a stake in the preservation of the paper and print industry, however they still raise an important question: Are digital methods of communication more environmentally friendly than paper methods?
Printed or digital?
Printed media has been heavily criticised in recent times. Critics state that the production of paper leads to considerable deforestation and significantly adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst there are improvements that could be made in production practises, some arguments against using paper are not as significant as they first appear.
As Two Sides North America pointed out in a press release, the naysayers of print have portrayed a false impression of the industry; one that depicts forests as finite resources that are being wiped out. Forests, in reality, are renewable resources that are being continually replenished through the use of sustainable forest management practices.
According to the American Forest and Paper Association AFANDPA’s most recent Sustainability Report, in 2012, 64.6% of paper used in the U.S was recovered for recycling. This was significantly higher than the recovery figures of glass, aluminium and plastics combined.
Initially, the use of digital media over printed media seems to be the more renewable option. Phones, laptops and other electronic devices are used over and over again, so it would be reasonable to assume that due to their reusability, they are a more sustainable option.
However, electronic devices do not come without their faults. The production methods employed to make these kinds of devices do leave a carbon footprint, and use a lot of energy to run. Another thing that is worrying is the increase in the numbers of abandoned electronics. This is a particular concern in developing countries.
A recent study estimates that ‘e-waste’, is on the rise and that developing countries will produce at least double the e-waste of developed countries within the next 6 to 8 years. The predicted figures are in the range of 400 to 700 million personal computers per year; this is an exceptionally high figure when compared to the 200 to the 300 million of developed countries.
These figures are significant, because of the uncontrolled toxic emissions that will be produced due to the informal recycling practises used in the developing world. These emissions can harm the recycling workers and pollute local environments.
A lack of tangible evidence
If companies want to declare that choosing to go paperless is better for the environment, studies are needed to support these claims. Currently there is not much evidence available comparing e-media to printed media. The primary reason for this is that the two methods are so dissimilar and the latter has been around for a great deal longer.
Paper is one of the oldest forms of communication, and as a result of this, its life-cycle is relatively easy to follow, whilst E-media is very young in comparative terms. Companies are obliged to prove that they have investigated both options thoroughly and have found that electronic devices have a smaller impact Riebel told the Guardian. “We have to be careful when we put one product against the other and say it’s better. It’s a tricky thing to do if you don’t have all the data to back it up.”
There are a variety of forms that paper comes in, as well as several different manufacturers, so it is probable that there will be several different impacts on the environment, rather than simply one that can be applied generally, noted Arpad Horvath, a professor of engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. Horvath published a study in 2004 on the environmental impact of wireless technologies, and added that further investigation is needed regarding the impact of electronics, meaning that there is no “average environmental footprint” for e-media either.
Motivations for going green
Whilst it isn’t clear whether the environment will actually benefit from choosing to go digital, what is clear is that it forgoing paper statements is an effective cost cutting strategy for companies, according to The Guardian. Shamel Naguib is the president of Paperless Productivity; a company that helps medium to large companies reduce their paper documents, or completely switch to digital. He says that the bottom line is the biggest motivations for companies. “For 99.9% of projects, the green initiative has nothing to do with it. It has everything to do with saving money.”
And it appears that consumers are becoming wise to companies’ real motivations. Two Sides North America conducted a survey of 2000 US consumers, which found that 8 out of 10 people were wary of a company’s intent to peddle e-billing over paper statements. They believed that a company’s reason for doing so was financial rather than concern for the environment.
Consumers actually appear to prefer paper. Technology consultancy Forrester Research Inc. released a study on the topic, which found that more than half of consumers were still actively choosing to receive paper bills and correspondence.
More research needs to be conducted on the life-cycle and influence of electronics on the environment. Until this has been done, it is pointless to set paper and e-media against one another. Both paper and e-media have a place in marketing and in the general communications company’s have with customers.
As Ribel points out, “The ideal situation is that we use both electronic and print media in a way that meets our social and environmental and economic needs.”