Are Paperless Bills and Statements Really Better for the Environment?


July 10, 2012 

Many leading U.S companies, including banks, utility companies and telecommunications providers, are urging their customers to go paperless with claims that electronic business communications and transactions are environmentally superior to those printed on paper.   But are they really better for the environment, and can these companies back up their claims with supporting data that would meet the standards set by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claimsbetter known as the Green Guides?

The Guides say that any environmental assertion must be based on competent and reliable scientific evidence, which the FTC defines as “tests, analyses, research, studies or other evidence based on the expertise of professionals in the relevant area, conducted and evaluated in an objective manner by persons qualified to do so, using procedures generally accepted in the profession to yield accurate and reliable results.”

The truth is that both paper and electronic communications have effects on the environment and making valid apples-to-apples comparisons is impossible without sorting through the complex life cycles of both.   We can, however, make some common sense comparisons that raise questions about the validity of claims that “going paperless” is a more environmentally responsible choice.

First, let’s look at raw materials.  Paper is made from a renewable resource, wood fiber from trees, while computers and the data center technology that support them are made primarily from finite resource – petroleum-based plastics, metals and rare earth minerals.  Then there’s energy use.  More than 65% of the energy used to manufacture paper in the United States comes from renewable, carbon-neutral biofuel.  With very few exceptions, the growing infrastructure of the U.S. information and communications technology sector is powered by electricity generated from fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change.  And lastly, consider recycling rates.  In 2011, 66.8% of paper consumed in the United States was recovered for recycling (AF&PA) compared to only 38% of computers in 2009 (the most recent figure available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

If companies want to encourage the use of electronic bills and statements to reduce their costs or promote the convenience of e-communications, that’s their choice.  But playing on consumers’ desire to be environmentally responsible without sound scientific backup only serves to further erode confidence in all green marketing claims, including the ones that represent real environmental value.

This week, Two Sides will launch a nationwide educational initiative to engage and encourage major U.S. corporations to adopt best practices for environmental marketing and end the use of misleading claims about the sustainability of print and paper.  You can read the press release here.  For more facts on the sustainability of print and paper, check out the Myths and Facts section on the Two Sides website

Kathi Rowzie is a guest blogger for Two Sides.  She is a sustainability communications consultant with The Gagliardi Group in Memphis, TN.