A recent marketing campaign by Toshiba was the cause this time. The company, a global manufacturer of consumer and commercial printers, among many other products, sought to establish a "No Print Day" and hoped to show the environmental benefits of reducing paper use in the office. Within hours, due in large part to social media, battle lines were drawn between paper supporters and opponents, largely centering on whether a business that depends on the paper industry should be calling for paper's demise.
The idea of a paperless office, and possibly a paperless society, has held sway over business' imagination like few other topics. Since 1975, when Businessweek magazine article declared the office of the future would thrive without paper, primarily through automation and technological advancements, the theory of living without paper has become like the search for the Higgs Bosen particle.
Is a paperless office possible? Demand for pulp and paper is approaching an all-time high. Foex, the Finnish company that publishes pulp, paper and paperboard price indexes, predicts the global paper market could reach a new record of 400 million tons in 2012. Another report earlier this year by Global Industry Analysts estimates global pulp and paper products consumption would grow to reach 446 million tons by 2015.
But these simple numbers betray a more complex trend. Global usage is expected to be largest in high-growth, high-potential markets, mainly in developing countries. In contrast, paper usage in the US and Europe has been falling steadily for the past five years and is expected to continue. The estimated number of office pages printed, copies and faxed annually in the US peaked in 2007 at more than 1 trillion pages, according to InfoTrends, and looks to fall further for the next five years.
After nearly six centuries, since the invention of the Guttenberg press, paper usage in many developed countries finally appears to be diminishing. This does not mean paper is due for extinction any time soon. Instead, there are a myriad of factors that look to keep paper around for decades and perhaps centuries to come.
Stubborn challenges remain
One of the biggest obstacles for eliminating paper in most homes and offices is legal documents, a problem first mentioned in the Businessweek article. "It always takes longer than we expect to change the way people customarily do their business," said Evelyn Berezin, president of Redacton Corp., which once held the second-largest installed-base of text-editing typewriters, behind IBM. Both companies are still in business today.
There are still wide misunderstandings on the legal differences between a digital signature, a handwritten signature, and a digital image of that same signature.
The US Internal Revenue Service provides a telling example of how long it has taken habits to change. In 2012, electronic fillings of individual tax returns increased 6.2% to 113 million out of a total of 137 million. Pre-printing of forms and publications has decreased proportionally, instead relying on printable PDF versions from websites for individuals and businesses. It would seem the public is finally ready to actively abandon paper for electronic documents.
But businesses often must take a different approach, simply because of regulations and legal requirements. The legal force of physical paper frequently holds more symbolic power than digital documents in courts and legal proceedings, despite electronic records management and electronic documents laws in many countries, including the US, Canada, and most of Europe. Insurance documents, wills, bank statements, accounting records all must be held for various lengths of time and many legal advisors still recommend keeping permanent paper records of the most important documents, such as stock certificates, articles of incorporation and tax records.
Digital signatures form another problem. While many government authorities have electronic document policies on the books, the laws and standards surrounding digital signatures in place of physical or handwritten signatures are not uniform. Public understanding, as well as time and costs, are still on the side of pen to paper. There are still wide misunderstanding on the legal differences between a digital signature, a handwritten signature, and a digital image of that same signature.
Our digital culture
The publishing industry is acutely aware of paper's decline, although more as a medium of transmission than a loss of information. Jeff Gomez, author of Print is Dead - Books in our Digital Age, says that paper will never disappear. Instead, society is slowly making its way toward an age less centered on paper transactions.
"The same way we still have candles even though there's electric light, paper will always exist in a multitude of forms and formats," says Gomez. "Whether this means the way information is shared, money is exchanged, or even the way we pay bills or communicate with each other."
There is a middle ground to be found between paper and print, explains Gomez. If anything, our culture is headed for an era where paper will be celebrated for its inherent worth and beauty. Many paper producers and commercial printers are already taking this approach, emphasizing how paper can add value in conjunction with, or in contrast to, the digital.
"Books that continue to be printed will celebrate their ‘print-ness'," says Gomez, "by having gorgeous covers and beautifully designed interiors with textured pages that feel good to the touch." There will also be digital-only novels, adds Gomez, that celebrate their ‘digital-ness' by taking advantage of new and emerging digital technology.
To understand the future of paper, says Gomez, there is a need to define the difference between print and paper.
"The idea of print means lots of things. Yes, it's true that newspapers are in trouble and that the industry, in the past decade, has contracted at an alarming rate. But the fact that huge swaths of the world's populations find their information online or through mobile devices means that print no longer has an inherent cultural function. But paper still has plenty of other uses, both aesthetically and functionally; it will never go the way of the dodo."
The book-on-demand printing business, such as the Espresso Book Machine in partnership with Xerox, has yet to provide a suitable alternative to either print or digital.
The world is full of irony. When Toshiba recently announced its marketing campaign for a "No Print Day," another older, larger question raised its head again. Should companies with an investment in the pulp and paper business advocate for a paper-less society?
In that 1975 Businessweek article, George E. Pake, at the time the head of Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center, said that the office copier giant was developing a new strategy for how business worked. "There is absolutely no question there will be a revolution in the office over the next 20 years. What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way TV has altered family life."
In this moment, Xerox declared it was not a paper-based company, but an information technology company. Whether paper is used or not would become irrelevant to how Xerox saw the future of the office. Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2002 article "The Social Life of Paper" agreed by saying "Computer technology was supposed to replace paper." Society's continuing need for paper has less to do with technology and more to do with intangibles and he points out that paper use has not disappeared as quickly as many had hoped or planned.
"This is generally taken as evidence of how hard it is to eradicate old, wasteful habits and of how stubbornly resistant we are to the efficiencies offered by computerizations," writes Gladwell. "A number of cognitive psychologists and ergonomics experts, however, don't agree. Paper, they argue, has persisted for very good reasons: when it comes to performing certain kinds of cognitive tasks, paper has many advantages over computers."
In the last decade, paper use in Europe and North America has indeed fallen and businesses now regularly push for paperless solutions to many tasks. Whether this is smart business is another debate. But it is interesting to note that the industry has been in a similar situation before.
Wood use for fuel in the United States peaked in 1906. After that, firewood use plunged as coal, and later natural gas, would replace it. Overall, US wood consumption would not surpass its former high until the 1980s. In that same time, the US population grew by approximately 150 million people. The cultural change in wood consumption over those seven decades can be attributed to corporate vision and technology advances as well as public perceptions.
For the time being, the evidence points to society using less paper. But there appears to be little proof of going paperless anytime soon.