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Online Billing May Not Be as Sustainable as You Think

Encouraging customers to get their bills online and also stating that this is better for the environment is increasingly being questioned. In the past two months, faced with being reported to the Advertising Standards Association, (ASA), several very large nationally known UK organisations have stopped similar messages, having accepted they were being made without adequate research, contravening CSR Europe and CAP (Code of Advertising Practice) guidelines.

Whilst the efficiency of electronic communication is clear and initiatives to reduce waste are to be encouraged, some are concerned that incorrect and damaging impressions are being given if “go paperless” initiatives are promoted as “green” or seek to gain credibility by purporting to aid sustainability at the expense of the print and paper industry.

It is increasingly clear that electronic communication and in particular the energy requirements of the increasing worldwide network of servers which are necessary to store all the information needed for immediate access, has a significant and increasing carbon footprint. Electronic document storage must be recognised as delivering efficiency but not sustainability. In the UK it has been suggested that PCs and servers may consume up to 50% of household energy requirements in the next 10 years. Greenpeace has reported that electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream and there are extremely serious disposal costs emerging.

All those who encourage customers to switch to e-billing, or any other form of electronic communication, largely to reduce costs, should re-examine their messages, as it is certainly questionable whether e-billing or e-communication has a lower carbon footprint. In fact, with all the environmental costs of electronic communication and with many customers printing out their bills at home for reference, (a recent study has assumed this to be between 10% and 30 % depending upon whether you are a business or private consumer), at a possible higher environmental cost than a centrally produced and distributed bill, print and paper may well be the environmentally sustainable way to communicate.

Paper is a renewable and recyclable product that, if responsibly produced and consumed, is an environmentally sustainable media. It is often surprising to learn that in Europe, where 93% of our paper comes from, the area of forest has grown by 30% since 1950 and is increasing at a rate of 1.5 million football pitches every year.

And with 55% of the worldwide forest harvest being consumed for fuel and 34% for construction and other uses, only 11% is actually directly used for making paper.

So, if your organisation is using messages that e-billing, or any other form of electronic communication, is more environmentally friendly than traditional print and paper, please check that you have not only calculated your own savings but also accurately assessed and calculated the downstream consequential costs.

It is encouraging that responsible organisations are now thinking carefully about the statements they make and ensuring that they are not simply repeating old misconceptions.

Martyn Eustace is Director of Two Sides, an initiative by companies from the Graphic Communications Supply Chain.

Martyn Eustace
Martyn Eustace is Director of Two Sides, an initiative by companies from the Graphic Communications Supply Chain.
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16 thoughts on “Online Billing May Not Be as Sustainable as You Think

  1. Hogwash! EL, you should know better than allowing this shill to expound on the virtues of paper. He is trying to salvage the last vestiges of paper based/mail supported infrastructure. Any credible examination of internet vs paper based billing or voting will easily show lower emissions for the digital world. Be a “real” environmental leader and don’t allow these corporate orgs to peddle “doubt”. Its this doubt that has gotten the US behind the 8 ball on the climate change front.

  2. Having worked in both publishing and logistics, I’m having a hard time adding up the real numbers in this article. Would like to see a full life-cycle analysis report that includes the shipping footprint related to paper billing verses an electronic bill. Data storage of the billing is going to occur whether it is paper or not. The PC energy use for receiving and viewing an electronic bill needs to be the measurement – not the entire PC energy consumption.

  3. Hardly an unbiased view given the affiliation. Additionally, this myopically focuses only on energy and carbon versus total environmental impact (production and recycling of paper statements, mail transportation, inks, etc) where paper would clearly be higher. Arguments about e-waste, etc are not convincing since consumers are not buying new computers just to get e-statements. No forests need to be used for paper statements as well – there is sufficient, indeed often surplus, 100% post consumer recycled fiber available.

  4. This seems like the wrong forum for this article. Most people on this site care about the environment and are informed enough to not believe this ridiculous bs. Online billing takes a minute or so on a computer and can be done while multitasking – like downloading music etc. Papermaking is incredibly resource intensive and requires trees, water, minerals etc. Lets not forget that tonnes of GHG emissions would be emitted during the transport of the bills. This is a great video highlighting the importance of using less paper, recycling and buying recycled: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OU8WY8va5h8

  5. So the carbon footprint of all those vehicles used to plant trees, harvest trees, process the trees into paper, transport the paper stock from the mill to the finishing company where it’s made into envelopes or sheets, transported to a central warehouse for distribution to retail/wholesale outlets, transported to companies so they can print up the bills and mail to the customers via petroleum fueled vehicles, mailed back to the companies using those same mail carriers, then either transported to warehouses to archive or to landfills for disposal is lower than shooting and storing an electron? Didn’t even consider the energy to run the logging company, the paper mill, the distriubtion warehouse, the wholesaler/retailer outlet building, or the post offices to support the mailing of the bill. Seriously???

  6. This is a completely unconvincing article that appeared to be manipulating the reader and certainly had me believing the author represents the paper industry. As much as this may be “peddling doubt” I’m not sure suppressing dubious opinions is a useful tactic. Rather, beat ’em up with the data that disproves their tripe, as readers have so aptly done in these comments.

  7. This is 100% total BS. First of all someone is not going to go buy a computer that they didn’t have already in order to do online bill pay or go get a better computer than they had already to do electronic bill pay or leave their computer on overnight when not using it just because they use online bill pay. So the waste and PC expense argument is just plain stupid. Now will they go to a couple more web pages and use some electricity and storage for the messages being moved around? Absolutely, but the cost to produce just the stamp they would use instead is probably more expensive and has higher carbon footprint. Never mind the paper manufacturing cost (recycled or not) and certainly not the footprint to transport the bill to our home and then the payment being sent back. I can’t believe a magazine called “Environmental Leader” would allow such trash to be included within your pages!

  8. Martyn Eustace’s job is two come up with a campaign across Europe to convince people that print MEDIA is Sustainable and relevant/useful. Probably correct on all points there, but Matryn by overstepping your bounds into an area that has nothing to do with your charter (attacking online billing and trying to tout paper as better) makes you look stupid and certainly kills any credibility in the other claims you want to make in the print media world! So watch out for your replacement he should be there soon if the print media industry has any smarts.

  9. I’d agree with the author’s comment that marketing claims and business decisions should be carefully vetted to avoid greenwash. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) provides a well-established methodology to quantify the (environmental) impacts of goods and services delivered to consumers. Numerous studies have been published on behalf of both the electronics / software industry as well as the pulp and paper industries. In order to make a fair, comparative assertion of benefit, a LCA study which normalizes the scope and boundaries and accounts for the full “cradle-to-grave” process (including material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, electricity consumption, and recycling) should be done. Indeed, businesses and marketing directors should avoid misconceptions by asserting claims based on fact, not opinion. A quick web-search reveals a few relevant studies (I’m sure you can find more).

  10. This article is a flagrant shill by a man whose job is to sell paper. Look: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/martyneustace

    I’m not going to formulate a fuller response, because it’s clear that most EL readers aren’t buying this completely un-supported argument. Also, I wouldn’t want to waste any server space and use up any of those precious electrons when printing the article and posting my comments to Mr. Eustace would clearly be the more environmentally conscious choice.

  11. As a sustainability professional, this article is a fine example of the sort of half-arsed pseudo-science industry lobbyists such as this “Two Sides” campaign love to employ. Throwing a few percentage signs into your piece doesn’t fool anyone that your analysis is complete or thorough.

    A simple question for Mr. Eustace: should we be using less paper?

    – “Several very large nationally known UK organisations…”

    Really? Which ones?

    – “Some are concerned that incorrect and damaging impressions are being given if “go paperless” initiatives are promoted as “green””.

    Who are these “some”? The print and paper industry, perchance?

  12. I am definitely no expert on e-waste nor paper consumption. I don’t know if one is really better than the other. What I do know is that this is an interesting perspective that points out how things are not necessarily what it sounds like. A concerned consumer needs to know the step-by-step process and consequences for both.

  13. e-billing uses less energy – period. Mr. Eustace, Two Sides, and EL
    should be ashamed of this sloppy article. Paper billing requires a
    larger IT infrastructure, bills don’t magically print themselves and
    then magically get entered into the database after they are received.
    The entire eWaste and energy consumption argument is nonsense. No
    one prints e-bills, that is just comical. Companies should push
    e-billing to customers because 1) it cost less per transaction, 2)
    they get paid more quickly, 3) it is better for the environment.

    Mr. Eustance is a paper industry insider
    environmental leader he is not.

  14. This article is such a clumsy and obvious attempt to mislead, it is almost funny. Especially the token attempts to appear objective deserve recognition for the comical sideshow they provide. Not much more needs to be said.

  15. As with the majority of posters have stated far more eloquently, I’m really disappointed that EL would not vette this kind of garbage more fully before diseminating it. Not one fact cited, no research referenced, but misinformation abounds. You should be ashamed.

  16. My company has commissioned a Lifecycle Analysis comparing the environmental impacts of sending a bill by internet and by post and to date, the results show that it is three times more impacting ( in the carbon footprint category) to send a transactional mail by internet rather than by post.

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