The cost of paper-based processes to the environment is higher than many realize.
With 42% of timber being harvested every year by the paper industry—that’s 30 million acres of forest routinely cut down—our paper use creates a damaging level of demand. Deforestation reduces tree cover; we know that. Between 2010 and 2020, the world lost 25.8 million hectares of tree cover. But the knock-on effects of this loss are even scarier. The amount of energy it takes to harvest this timber regularly and turn it into paper sheets produces vast amounts of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. Each sheet of paper requires 20 liters of water to make in the pulp factory.
The footprint of paper-making gets larger and larger the further you go along the supply chain, considering the transportation and packaging it takes to supply the world’s businesses with their paper shipments. But many of us assume that we can offset that impact by recycling. Paper is recyclable, right? Unfortunately, paper recycling is far from a perfect system, and 26% of waste in landfill sites is actually discarded paper products, which then rot and again create harmful methane gas.
The office environment has historically relied on paper-based products, even when digital technology is advanced enough to remove our need for them. It’s time for businesses to get serious about digital transformation to improve operational efficiency and reduce our harmful impact on the world.
How can digital transformation help?
Certain business processes that are traditionally paper-based can be digitized now and reduce paper consumption while speeding up and streamlining operations.
For example, an employee experience platform can take critical business processes like surveys and assessments and put them into a digital space. We did this work with COVID-19 screenings. We realized that companies were carrying out hundreds of thousands of tests every day and using paper forms to record consent and issue results and directions. We took care of all those forms on our digital self-assessment platform, leading to an annual saving of over 100 million sheets of paper per year.
This already sounds like a lot, but let’s put it into context. When you think about the 2.19 billion liters of water that paper would have taken to make and the fact that a single tree only yields 10-20 thousand sheets of paper, digitizing the single function of COVID-19 screenings can save a lot of harm.
Digital transformation has a host of other benefits for businesses, not least the financial savings it will yield.
The financial impact of reducing the paper burden is huge and could save your budget for other necessary developments. If the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of paper a year, at a cost per sheet of around 2 cents, you can imagine how much of an investment your company’s paper use is. Beyond the cost of paper itself, a paper-based system incurs many other costs—pens, printing ink, printers, photocopying, shredders and the sheer space and power needed to run all this equipment.
The financial benefit of reducing waste is also worth mentioning. It is estimated that 45% of printed paper in an office ends up in the bin and that businesses spend over $120 billion a year printing forms that are rendered redundant in less than three months. This represents a huge loss in productivity, not to mention the time it takes for employees to retrieve paper that has been misfiled or lost.
Beyond the environmental and financial boon of digital transformation, it can also bring transformative benefits to employee productivity and the employee experience.
Employee engagement and performance management solutions go hand in hand. Paper-based processes come at a high cost when it comes to employee engagement. Relying on paper-based working, printing, copying and filing hampers and slows down productivity in the office. Workers rely on objects and can only innovate as far as these inflexible processes allow.
Moreover, there is a time lag between filling in a form and taking action. This lag can have dangerous consequences for health and safety and employer accountability. Further productivity is lost, resulting in a culture where employees feel disempowered and disengaged, unable to initiate change.
Are there downsides to digital transformation?
Digital transformation is a long-term solution for reducing harmful practices and lowering businesses’ negative impact on the environment, but digitization also has some environmental concerns to consider.
While energy consumption overall will decrease when processes are digitized, digitization does require a large amount of energy. Transmission networks and data centers require vast amounts of power to run, and the hardware that composes them also costs energy to build and install.
The carbon footprint of digital centers is significant. As we work in a digitally transforming world, even sending a single email can cost us 4 grams of carbon dioxide. It puts a whole new perspective on “inbox zero.” The production of digital hardware involves the mining and extraction of raw materials, which causes damage to land and ecosystems, not to mention resource depletion. The manufacturing process of this hardware uses large amounts of water and energy, too.
However, despite the impacts of digital transformation needing to be checked and balanced, the long-term benefits of steering our collective ship away from paper use win out. And because we can gain operational efficiency and employee productivity by cutting down on our paper use, we should be able to use that extra time and energy to solve the downsides of digitization.
Reducing environmental impact through digitization
When we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of digitization for our environment and our businesses, we see that the rewards outweigh the risks. But how can you take the reins of digital transformation and lead change in your company?
1. Shift paper-based processes onto a platform
Moving from paper-based systems to digital processes is a no-brainer from a financial perspective. The COVID-19 screening example shows that 109.5 million screenings can be carried out on a digital platform, saving time and cost and improving trackability and accountability while saving an overwhelming amount of paper forms. This saves the cost of paper and its various connected paraphernalia like printing and disposal.
2. Digitize staying healthy and safe
The digitization of health and safety processes saves not only lives and well-being, but also money. A digital solution means that information can be relayed in real time and action can be taken immediately. Take, for example, a hazardous chemical spill: When reported using a digital platform, an immediate response can be formulated and acted upon based on data, whereas with paper-based reporting, a form needs to be found, filled in, given to a department head who then has to hand it over to another person who may or may not be on-site — all at significant financial and reputational cost to your company.
3. Use digital transformation to engage employees
Digital tools can empower employees, especially frontline employees, to do their jobs better. You can use digital platforms to foster connections between employees and leaders, creating more of a collaborative and rich culture. Improve efficiency by cutting out time wasters, and you also boost the sense of productivity and well-being in your workplace. People feel like they’re getting more done and taking more ownership of their role at work. Your frontline employees are the coalface of your organization; connect to them, and you’ll always know what’s happening on the ground so you can react accordingly.
Digital transformation can save your business time, productivity, money, stress and talent while reducing your footprint on the environment. Turn back the harmful processes of the past, and forge ahead with a new way of thinking by embracing digital technologies and helping your employees embrace them, too.
About the author: Gys Kappers is CEO and co-founder of Wyzetalk, a leading global digital employee experience solution that connects your workforce and drives innovation and business performance.
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