VSJ – October 2008 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones goes green-ish

Listeners to Radio 4’s Now Show will no doubt recall an audience member’s plaintive cry that, every time he sends an email to his printer, he gets an extra page whose sole function is to ask him if he really needs to print it out. I’m sure he was being ironic. However, my suspicion that there are plenty of people out there who could voice this opinion without a hint of irony was confirmed recently by a report on Silicon.com entitled ‘Paper Junkies Can’t Kick the Printing Habit’. It referred to an Envirowise study (www.envirowise.gov.uk) according to which office workers are costing their companies dearly by printing out more than 120 billion sheets of paper annually. A few back-of-envelope calculations yield a disturbing picture. Let’s suppose each sheet costs 10p. That’s not unreasonable if we include all printing costs – paper storage and transport, toner, drums, printer depreciation, maintenance and so on. So, as a country, we’re spending £12 billion that way. The UK’s GDP is a tad north of £1 trillion. As a ball-park figure then, let’s say that printing costs account for 1% of GDP. GDP is effectively gross turnover. So an average company whose gross profit is 10% could increase it by 5% (to 10.5%) if it could eliminate half its printing. To be fair, quite a few major companies are tackling the problem at some level. I no longer receive paper statements from my ISP, my credit card provider or my power supplier, which, of course, saves them postage as well as paper.

So, what should we do? As luck would have it, I’ve been engaged in a three-month (so far) experiment to do without printers altogether. To be honest, this wasn’t triggered by any environmental philosophy. It was merely that all three of my printers have been in varying stages of terminal decline for some time and I’ve been in that familiar inertial state brought about by the plethora of existing options and forthcoming delights that will be available, Sir, without fail, in the industry-standard fortnight. Not to mention the fact that the prices will have dropped by next week.

Anyway, whatever my motives, the effect is the same; I haven’t printed a document for twelve whole weeks. And I haven’t needed to. Of course, I’ve had to change some ingrained habits. On my way out to a meeting, I would traditionally have printed off the minutes of its predecessor. Now I either have to take my laptop or Bluetooth the necessary documents to my PDA. But that’s led to some obvious advantages. No longer do I dread the question to which I have to respond, “I have those data, but they’re back in the office.” If I’ve done the analysis – ever – I’ve got it with me. And if I need to remind myself quickly what Higgins said about network security last March (or was it January?) it’s just an automated search that can be conducted while I’m still paying attention instead of scrabbling through half a Norwegian forest.

How do we convince everyone one else about this? Well, chuntering about the paperless office for the last thirty years hasn’t got us far. So maybe it’s time for drastic action. Go cold turkey. Take away everyone’s easily accessible printers and make them justify any printout.

Will I ever buy a new printer? Yes, and before Christmas. I can’t imagine going back to handwriting Christmas card labels. There are limits.

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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