Julie Tucker
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The digital world: Is it really greener?

Some businesses try to encourage their customers to opt for the “go paperless, save trees” option when receiving a letter. They are operating under the assumption that going digital is better for the environment… but the paper industry disputes this!

The ongoing debate about whether the digital world is really greener has revealed pros and cons for each area. Many businesses and individuals believe going digital is better for the environment, but the paper industry is now challenging this assumption.

In recent years, many businesses such as utilities companies, banks and telecoms firms, have urged customers to “go paperless”, however, paper manufacturers are urging businesses to remove this message, claiming it isn’t substantiated by adequate research.

A non-profit organisation that represents the paper and print industry, Two Sides, claims it has convinced more than 20 large companies in the banking, telecoms and utilities sectors to remove their “anti-paper” messages when it comes to promoting electronic billing.

Two Sides suggests the environmental claims of digital billing aren’t taking into account important factors such as sustainable forestry practices and the fact many customers will print off digital bills at home anyway, as they like to have a paper record of transactions for their files.

How many people print digital copies at home?

While it would be fair to say the members of Two Sides have a vested interest in persuading people to request paper bills, is it true that a lot of people print off electronic bills anyway? It appears the answer is yes, according to research by the Consumer Action group. Not everyone wants to move to digital bills, while some people don’t have the technical knowledge or means to receive e-copies, according to a survey.

In some ways, the digital world seems to be overtaking old-fashioned paper in particular sectors. For example, few people use an old paper map these days, while the physical phone book is seldom used by people under 50.

Around 70% of respondents in a survey said they relied on their mobile phone for sat nav and for looking up phone numbers and addresses. However, when it comes to invoices, people seem to have a different view. Consumer Action’s research reveals many customers still wish to receive important financial documents in paper form.

Even people who pay bills online like to have a paper copy for their records. Depending on the sector, between 45% and 74% of respondents choose paper over digital notifications for credit card statements, insurance documents, utilities bills, mortgage statements, medical documents and information relating to property taxes.

In financial terms, businesses enjoy cost savings from going digital, as they don’t have to pay for printing, postage, storage and labour costs for filling envelopes. However, in terms of helping the environment, if 74% of customers are printing off electronic bills at home for their records, it’s defeating the object of sending out bills online.

People surveyed by Consumer Action said they liked to have a hard copy of what they owed or what they had paid. It helped them to pay their bills on time, provided proof if the supplier made an error, or served as a simple record-keeping system.

How often do paper documents get recycled?

Critics claim paper manufacturing causes mass deforestation, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. However, research suggests paper making can be sustainable, as it’s a highly recyclable commodity, with 65% of paper recycled globally in an average year. If sustainable forestry practices are used, supporters say there is no need for it to have a negative impact on the environment.

At a glance, digital media appears to be more sustainable, because products such as laptops and mobile phones are used time and time again. However, the manufacture of electronic products leaves a carbon footprint. The energy used in the production processes is a drain on the earth’s resources.

In addition, discarded electronic products, especially in developing countries, also leaves a carbon footprint. Electronic waste is increasing worldwide by around 40 million tons per year, especially in India and South Africa, according to a United Nations’ report.

Lack of information

The paper industry says there isn’t much data available comparing paper and digital media. While paper is one of the oldest types of communication, with a lifecycle that is easy to track, digital media is relatively young.

Before companies can claim digital communication has a lower environmental impact, more research is needed into whether this is true. Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley in the United States say more studies are needed regarding the carbon footprint of electronics. They suggest there is currently no “average environmental footprint” for e-media.

Saving money or saving the environment?

When you’re running your own business, saving the environment, and saving money are two important factors. If you’re self-employed, an entrepreneur or a sole trader, saving money is of the utmost importance, especially as the UK strives to recover economically from the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the environmental benefits of going digital aren’t 100% clear yet, it certainly carries cost savings. As people return to the office, you may be saving money already by working from flexible space, such as coworking spaces, removing the burden of fixed office rental fees.

However, if you’re sending out hundreds of mailshots, letters, invoices, and other material on paper, you could be spending more than if you were to switch to sending digital communications. It’s a complex matter balancing out cost-saving, protecting the environment and giving clients what they want.

Customers want to make a difference, according to a survey of more than 1,000 people by Futerra in the UK and the US. A massive 96% of people believe their own actions, such as buying ethically and recycling, can make a difference. In addition, 88% of respondents said they preferred brands that helped consumers improve their environmental footprint.

Headspace Group is proud to be playing its part in the area of sustainability. All Headspace locations are powered by renewably sourced electricity and we’ve been operating on a zero percent waste to landfill policy since 2018. Our data is hosted on carbon neutral servers and we are part way through a huge investment programme to replace all lighting with LEDs.



Image © Andrey Popov / Adobe Stock

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