Should a small business really go paper-free?

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Plenty of businesses talk about creating a “paperless office” but is this really feasible for a small business?  And is it desirable?

The paperless office is heralded as a cleaner, greener and less cluttered working environment.

There is certainly something to be said for creating a less cluttered working environment.  Electronic records can be far easier to search and secure than their paper equivalents.  And, as the saying goes, “tidy house, tidy mind”.

As the price of accessing computerised office tools continues to fall, the ability to eliminate the paperwork that typically decorates your average office space continues to become more achievable.  In the paperless office theory, paper is little more than “clutter”.

The principles of a tidy and well-organised workspace, the reduction of waste, and improved material flow are fundamental to the thinking behind such lofty management concepts as TPS, Lean and kaizen.  And some argue the benefits of a tidy workspace go beyond the obvious benefit of it simply being easier to find things and have space to work.

Mari Kondo, the Japanese decluttering expert, says: “The benefits of decluttering are logical.  But when you become confident about your decisions after finishing tidying, you begin believing in your instincts, and this might feel like good things are continuously happening mysteriously.”

But, while minimizing the piles of paper on our desks might be beneficial, the benefits of going “paper free” from an ecological standpoint are less convincing.

Datacenter Dynamics has reported that electronics account for about five percent of total global energy use.  It says that number “is projected to grow to at least 40 percent by 2030 unless there are major advances made in the lowering of electricity consumption”.

Furthermore, “the information and communications technology (ICT) sector is predicted to use twenty percent of all the world’s electricity by 2025 and emit up to five-and-a-half percent of all carbon emissions.”

In fact, Forbes magazine has stated: “U.S. data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, requiring roughly 34 giant (500-megawatt) coal-powered plants.  Global data centers used roughly 416 terawatts (4.16 x 1014 watts) (or about 3% of the total electricity) last year, nearly 40% more than the entire United Kingdom.  And this consumption will double every four years.  This is a big problem, and it’s getting bigger.”

When contrasted with the green credentials of paper produced from sustainable forests, the move to digital doesn’t stack up so well.  Two Sides has pointed out that “Paper is based on wood, a natural and renewable material.  As young trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.  Furthermore, as a wood product, paper also continues to store carbon throughout its lifetime.”

When we consider that the European paper recycling rate is 72.3% and that, between 2005 and 2015, European forests grew by an area the size of Switzerland, the drive for a paperless office looks less meaningful.

Perhaps we need to reorient the ambition.

As we see from the burgeoning costs – both environmental and financial – of electronic records perhaps the focus of effort needs to be on the practice of decluttering itself; rather than on mandating the medium.

It’s easy to think of electronic data as bearing very little cost, perhaps because it is less tangible.  However, the cost of storing it unnecessarily is high – both for our businesses and the world. When electronic data is stored it does not store carbon; rather it requires the further consumption of fuels that produce carbon.  Paper, on the other hand, does store carbon and, once produced, does not require the further consumption of fossil fuel; it’s a one-time payoff.

When we bring in the other advantages of paper in terms of productivity, the improved retention of information, and creativity, the desire for a paperless office looks misplaced.

So, let’s focus on decluttering all our unneeded data – rather than singling out just the paper-based information.