A New Campaign Claims Paperless Billing is Not That Green

What is more eco-friendly – online billing or paper billing? Most people would probably assume that paying bills online is greener. Not so fast says Two Sides, an organization representing members of the graphic communications value chain (think paper manufacturers and printers). Two Sides’ stated goal is “to provide stakeholders with factual, accurate and science-based information on the sustainability of print and paper.”

The coallition believes that the answer is more complicated and companies that describe online billing as a greener option might be providing their customers misleading information.

Two Sides wants to fix it and has just announced a nationwide initiative to “offer our expertise at no cost to U.S. corporations who currently make environmental claims about print and paper relative to online billing and communication.” It claims that a similar campaign in the UK was very successful with companies like British Telecom, Vodafone and EON Energy that “agreed to change their messaging to eliminate misleading or factually incorrect environmental claims about the use of print and paper.”

The interesting question here is not only if this campaign can succeed in the U.S., but also if its claims that paper billing is not necessarily worse than digital billing are accurate.

The campaign’s basic hypothesis is that leading U.S companies who urge their customers to go paperless because of environmental reasons don’t understand the full story. “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 better known as the Green Guides?” Two Sides asks.

The Guides, Two Sides notes, say that any environmental assertion must be based on competent and reliable scientific evidence. The truth, the organization continues, “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.”

At this stage one would expect Two Sides to provide links to life cycle analyses that proves their point. Well, they don’t. What they do provide is data that shows positive impact of paper (more than 65% of the energy used to manufacture paper in the United States comes from renewable, carbon-neutral biofuel) and negative impacts of IT (with very few exceptions, the growing infrastructure of the U.S. information and communications technology sector is powered by electricity generated from fossil fuels).

Though this information certainly highlights the complexity of the compassion between paper and paperless options, this is not a life cycle assessment. So I started wondering why Two Sides say companies need life cycle analysis (LCA) to verify their claims on the superiority of electronic billing, but at the same time don’t provide them with LCA that will prove paper is better – is it because they aren’t any?

I decided to find out for myself and with a little research uncovered two life cycle assessments that actually compared paper billing to online billing. The first was prepared for Telstra, the Australian telecommunications and media company. This peer-reviewed LCA aimed to “inform Telstra management and customers about the benefits of a customer choosing pure online billing over paper billing.” It continues saying that “Telstra, by employing LCA, has ensured that a robust analysis has been completed prior to publicly stating the environmental impacts of its products and services, in this case, of online billing compared to conventional paper billing.” In other words, paperless is more environmentally friendly.

Sounds like a great outcome for Two Sides, right? Here’s company that actually does what Two Sides claims companies should be doing. Yet, looking at the results you might find why Two Sides was not promoting this case of successful due dilligence. The key finding is that “for every 1 million online bills received by customers instead of a paper bill, 19.9 tonnes of CO2 equivalents is saved, 6 tonnes of fossil fuels and scars metals, 32 tonnes of toxic substances and reduces that potential impact on land use by 20,000 PDF cm2 yr.” However, there are five cases where paper is better – for example, when all paper bill customers recycle the paper bills, or when 95 percent of customers print their online bill. As you can see, the picture is quite clear – in most cases, electronic billing is greener.

The second LCA was conducted by two French researchers from the University of Technology of Troyes, comparing paper billing and payment (PBP) to electronic billing and payment (EBP). Its conclusion was that “the environmental impact of EBP system is much lower than the PBP system.” In other words, electronic billing is greener.

In addition to wondering why Two Sides left these LCAs in its educational campaign, one must wonder how effective this campaign can be. No matter how green electronic billing is, it saves both companies and customers money and time, so the chances that companies that have left paper billing will return to it is quite slim, even if they think paper is greener. If there’s a lesson Two Sides can learn from green marketing it is that green can’t win over savings and convenience.

Still, the main point is that it looks like Two Sides needs to make sure its claims are valid before asking companies to do the same.

[Image credit: pinprick, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as well as the sharing economy, sustainable business models and design thinking. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, resilience and the sharing economy, future of design thinking, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyles.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.