When I went online a couple of days ago to change some of the features of my phone service, the first thing I saw after I logged on was a pop-up asking if I’d like to “go green and go paperless.” It made me think about the broad implications of that choice. On its face, clicking “sign me up” would probably seem pretty innocuous to most people, generating the feel-good, albeit unsupported, vibe that corporate marketers intend. But there’s a hidden consequence in using unsubstantiated environmental claims to promote paperless communication: potential job loss for millions of Americans.
Millions of Americans? It sounds like a stretch until you consider how many U.S. families depend on the paper, print and mailing industries for their livelihoods. A 2010 U.S. Mailing Industry Jobs Study conducted for the Envelope Manufacturers Association found that the U.S. mailing industry supports 8.7 million jobs. These are people who are directly employed in forest products, paper, printing, direct mail design, mail management and mail delivery jobs, 91.7 percent of them in the private sector. Include supply chain jobs, many in small companies that would go belly-up if print and paper go away, and the reach of a collective online click extends even further. (Be on the lookout for updated survey data from EMA).
There are also some 10 million family forest owners who depend on income from the wood they supply for pulp and papermaking. These folks are the backbone of the print and paper industry, filling the demand for the sustainably grown wood fiber used in printed phone bills, bank statements and other customer communications. In fact, 60% of the wood used to manufacture paper in the United States comes from these small family owned tree farms. According to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), family forest owners account for 92 percent of all private forest owners and 62 percent of the private forestland (35 percent of all forestland) in the United States with the average family farm holding at around 25 acres. For more see the USDA report.
Without the demand for sustainably grown wood to make paper and the income it provides, many families would be tempted to sell their land for development, the leading cause of U.S. forest loss, rather than continue to manage it responsibly. This is especially true in today’s tough economic times. The USFS says U.S. family forest owners have held their land an average of 26 years. Should these people on the front lines of sustainable forest management be forced to make the difficult financial choice to sell long-held family land when a drop in paper demand results from green marketing claims that don’t hold water?
If companies want to encourage a switch from paper to electronic communication because it’s speedier or more cost-effective, I can’t argue with that. But don’t tout that electronic bill or monthly statement as the greener alternative because it’s just not true. (To avoid greenwashing, companies should follow best practices for environmental marketing and ensure that environmental claims are based on “competent and reliable scientific evidence” as stated by the US FTC Green Guides) The fact is that both paper and electronic communications have environmental trade-offs and both have valuable consumer benefits. Chief marketing officers who have thumbs up or down power to end the proliferation of “go paperless” messaging should think long and hard about that. Millions of their customers do … the millions who depend on print and paper to put bread on the table each day.
Kathi Rowzie is a Two Sides guest blogger and a sustainability communications consultant with The Gagliardi Group in Memphis, Tennessee.
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