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 and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

4 responses

  1. I find it ridiculous that we’re even debating this.  It’s a distraction from issues that really matter.  But if we must discuss billing – why would *any* company want to go through the added expense and hassle of stuffing millions of envelopes and paying postage?  Forget “green”.  Paperless billing is radically cheaper. 

    If a customer insists on a paper bill, a company should charge them for it.  Simple as that.

    There are plenty of opportunities for the paper industry to thrive.  I find it hard to believe paperless billing is really that much of a threat to them.  The US Postal service on the other hand….

    1.  The idea that this debate is useless, it’s ridiculous as well…I think that is good news if online bills pollutes less than paper ones and every business should know it not to waste paper any more… But knowing that also online billing is polluting the environment is a warning that should compel companies and people to ask for a greener internet as we all are shifting our lives to it.

      1. The pollution is online, the idea that a naturally cycled product is pollution is ridiculous, Nicks view is bang on, it isn’t about the rights and wrongs (the research is skewed and inaccurate, read it, it misses benefit from tree growth and carbon storage and also does not allow for hardware manufacture emissions, use and its end of life ‘issues’ or the non sustainable use of heavy metals and toxic materials.
        Paper is a non toxic substance.
        This is about banks making more profits by saving on paper mailings, the environmental effects don’t exist beyond an excuse. 
        Are you being offered a cash incentive for going paperless due to the savings? Work it out, postage cost, print costs, mailing costs, it is heading towards 80 cents (50p UK) per account mailing 12 times a year, you are giving them millions for no benefit.
        If the banks told you this would you accept paperless?
        If the bank says, save a rainforest, tree, elephant, monkey, because print kills them the acceptance changes through guilt and a want to look after these things, why wouldn’t you go paperless.
        The cold fact is this:  
        You have been conned, trees are gown as harvests, crops like wheat, for one reason timber for building and paper. The forest is sustainable and have nothing to do with rainforest or deforestation (the majority of rainforest is hard wood, its just doesn’t make for good paper, the grain is too short). Commercial forests have environmental benefits including the sequestration of CO2 which is converted to carbon naturally during tree growth. (The trees used are fast growing spruce, eucalyptus, ect, they share a similar characteristic as they have a soft long grain ideal for paper manufacture, harvested between 25 – 35 years in cycles, one out 3-5 in).    
        The CO2 absorption process is taught in a junior biology lesson and is entirely natural, there is no con. Because of managed forests the deforestation loss in the rainforest has been more than exceeded by commercial forest increase, how can that be bad, we now have more CO2 sequestered and carbon stored globally, can emedia claim this? No its a generator of CO2 not an absorber.
        So why do so many fail to question or challenge blatant and mis-leading truths and instead accept the dross published above by lazy journo’s, who can’t be asked to look after the public interests and would rather we all burnt to death, in a human accelerated (note accelerated not created), climatic disaster to court populist ill informed belief rather than challenge non existent facts preached to suit one viewpoint.
        The question to ask yourselves is are you comfortable with a view that refuses to accept maybe its wrong? 
        I am not an out and out supporter of Two Sides views, however on this occasion they have a valid and reasonable point that should deserve consideration in a balanced way.    

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