"This year, Google Drive is part of the Paperless Coalition, a group of organizations and products that help you live completely in a paper-free world," declared Google product marketing manager Meredith Blackwell in a blog post. "So whether you're an expense reporter, invoice tracker, file hoarder or note jotter, you can do it all without using paper."
Joining Google in its coalition are several other online services: HelloFax, an online fax service; Manilla, an online bill management service; HelloSign, an e-signature service; Expensify, an online expense reporting service; Xero, an online business accounting service; and Fujitsu, which makes the ScanSnap scanner.
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Google isn't going so far as to discourage use of its Cloud Print service or to add an "Are you sure?" popup when a Google Apps user selects the print command. Rather it wants more people to appreciate the benefits of cloud computing. The whole idea of going paperless is flawed if you accept claims that online services actually increase paper usage.
A 2001 research paper suggested that printed email accounted for 10% of paper used by U.C. Berkeley students and 14% of the paper used by U.C. Berkeley campus employees. The 2003 book The Myth of the Paperless Office cited IDC's finding that, on average, the introduction of email to an organization increased its paper consumption by 40%. The book also cited a CAP Ventures study of 150 IT managers who reported that giving workers network access caused "a noticeable increase" in printing within their respective organizations.
The proliferation of portable and tablet computers since then may have changed the equation somewhat. Nevertheless, paper isn't simply a vestigial medium in the digital age. It has its uses and its advantages.
While Blackwell's suggestion that going paperless can save trees has some validity, trees at least can be managed as a renewable resource that protects forest land from potentially worse industrial uses.
Data centers, meanwhile, still struggle to be green. Environmental groups like Greenpeace continue to criticize the data centers of large online companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google for over-reliance on energy derived from coal.
What's more, the energy cost to produce and print a sheet of paper appears to be comparable to the cost of consuming a similar amount of digital media, at least when the calculation is made with energy-hungry desktop computers. In a 2010 paper, Tejo Pydipati, then a Stanford graduate student, claimed that the approximately six-minute reading time for a two-page electronic document consumes from 153.3.kJ (desktop) to 16.4 kJ (laptop), roughly the same on the high end as the 146.5 kJ required to produce a sheet of paper printed on both sides.
Pydipati concludes that electronic media consumption is preferable for email messages that will be read once, quickly. But for documents that need to be displayed many times, he argued that printing represents a valid alternative.
Cloud computing is certainly becoming more compelling as a path toward environmental responsibility, but it isn't yet a paperless path. Rather than pledging to go paperless, businesses should consider how they use paper in less absolutist, more practical terms.