Initiatives to Reduce Paper Use, Improve the Bottom Line

by | Jan 11, 2011

This is the time of year when many contemplate New Year’s resolutions, and “How I can be better tomorrow” plans and promises. Many such plans include a commitment to better steward the environment. As organizations transition into a new year, they should also take another look at sustainability – and particularly at opportunities to green fundamental aspects of business operations.

While many organizations focus on big picture environmental opportunities such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and increasing renewable energy investments, sometimes the most elemental facets of business get overlooked. One of the most basics of business is paper, used in everything from billing to photo-copying, marketing and reporting. According to ForestEthics, a member of the Environmental Paper Network, the number of pages of paper consumed in U.S. offices is growing by about 20 percent each year. Meeting the demands of this great paper chase – within and outside of today’s corporations – requires a resource-intensive manufacturing process dependent on forests, water and energy. Unchecked demand and mismanagement of these resources can affect the climate, biodiversity, and the health and well-being of communities.

According to U.S. EPA data, the average U.S. office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year, which contributes to an annual consumption of about 85 million tons of paper and paperboard. At an individual level, this suggests that on average each American uses the equivalent of one 100-foot-tall Douglas fir tree in paper and wood products each year. The steps we take – as businesses and individuals – to reduce paper usage is a basic step that can play a major role in helping to preserve vital resources and reduce an organization’s environmental impact

Not only does decreasing paper use help to protect valuable natural resources, it can also help the bottom line. Promoting e-billing and redesigning customer statements to use less paper, for example, saves on the costs necessary to print and mail bulky documents. If business unit leaders encourage document scanning vs. hardcopy printing or copying, an organization can remove inactive machines, thereby saving on the costs associated with running and maintaining the equipment, while simultaneously increasing the efficiency of devices remaining in use. There are many simple yet cost-saving benefits to improved paper use management.

Developing and implementing a successful paper reduction plan that meets the needs of multiple stakeholders does not come without challenges. As different business units tend to use paper in different ways, finding a cross-departmental approach requires a methodical approach. The first step is to assess which business units have the greatest reliance on paper and paperboard. Within Sprint, four major business units – Marketing, IT (customer billing services), Real Estate and Retail – drive the majority of Sprint’s paper procurement, with Marketing comprising nearly two-thirds of our total procurement. Identifying the areas of your business with the greatest paper demand clarifies where paper reduction efforts and goals should focus.

Once you identify key company stakeholders, the next steps center on establishing business unit-specific sub-targets, and setting a base-line against which to measure and track progress. Success ultimately stems from taking progressive, business-unit specific steps toward paper-reduction commitments and goals, which first requires the buy-in of each business unit. Establishing a working group that includes representatives of each department can be key to collaboration and securing stakeholder buy-in, as it enables each to be directly involved in setting realistic and achievable goals and plans. At Sprint, the culmination of such a working group is a new “Paper & Print Procurement Policy”, which is signed by the vice president of each of the four primary business units. The signed final policy is a reflection of each business unit’s commitment to better steward their use of paper and the resources required to produce it.

Writing a policy is only half the battle. Seeking input from outside experts to validate plans and to learn what other companies are doing successfully is invaluable. It is also essential to consider where paper comes from and how it’s produced. Purchasing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper, or paper containing post-consumer content, ensures paper comes from sustainably managed forests and reduces the demand for virgin resources. It is also important to consistently and transparently track and report progress, identify challenges and share lessons learned – to the benefit of both internal and external audiences. Regular review and refinement of policies and goals is also crucial to ensuring your company keeps moving forward on its sustainability journey.

Paper is viewed as a business essential for many organizations, and many times environmental sustainability plans and goals overlook the basics of business. But addressing the fundamentals often produces significant results – from cost reductions across business units to a smaller environmental footprint. As individuals and organizations prepare for the New Year, plans should consider the small but significant steps that can better the health of our planet.

Ralph Reid is vice president of corporate social responsibility for Sprint.

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