Can American Businesses Kick Their Addiction to Paper?

December 8, 2022
Carolyn Parent

To file a tax return, complete a contract, or conduct almost 15,000 different government procedures in Japan, you’ll need a hanko. The carved ivory stamps are used instead of signatures for official business — and since you can’t use a hanko on a computer screen, virtually all forms and contracts must be printed on paper.

Efforts to scrap hankos and accelerate digitization have fallen flat. As reformers quickly learned, paper — much like sugar — is bad for your organizational health,  but also deeply addictive. 

That might sound quaint to Westerners who use e-signatures instead of hankos to manage digital forms. The reality, though, is that here in the West, we’re just as addicted to paper — and until we manage to kick the habit, we’ll struggle to realize the full benefits of digitization.

The first step is in acknowledging the big addiction

That might sound like a stretch; after all, we constantly use laptops, tablets, and smartphones. But while digital tools have transformed our businesses, we remain incredibly dependent on paper.

It’s estimated that the average U.S. worker wastes 10,00 sheets of paper per year, while IT teams spend a third of their time dealing with office printing issues. In total, the United States consumes 64 million metric tons of paper each year, requiring the downing of tens of millions of trees

Our addiction to paper, in other words, is still going strong, and supposedly “paperless” offices aren’t dampening our craving for the white stuff. Paper is woven into the fabric of our business processes: orders are faxed; documents are printed for circulation or review; and invoices, brochures, and manuals are printed and shipped at enormous cost.

The not so sweet effects of paper addiction

I’ve got nothing against paper — as a bookworm, I love curling up with a good hardbound book. But as a CEO, I’ve learned the hard way that much like a sugar addiction, our addiction to paper is bad for our health. 

Today’s organizations are under increasing pressure to prioritize ESG, and paper is a chief stumbling block. In the United States, the paper industry releases more toxic air emissions than the power industry does. What’s more, 3.5 gallons of precious water is required to produce a single sheet of paper! It’s imperative that we reduce our reliance on paper in order to achieve the sizable sustainability gains demanded by both investors and consumers. 

But the financial and environmental impacts of excessive paper use are just part of the story. For many businesses, the biggest problem is the inefficiency that comes with using endless sheafs of paper to share information and manage business processes. 

Printed documents can become off-ramps diverting data away from digital tools, or silos preventing insights from being shared effectively. With paper documentation gathering dust on shelves, meanwhile, institutional knowledge is lost, leaving teams to reinvent the wheel each time they encounter a problem.

Even organizations with paperless offices continue to push paper at their customers. Manuals are still typically printed out, for instance, creating supply-chain headaches and making it harder for digital-native customers to unlock the full value of their products.

How to kick the habit

Just like a sugar addiction, it’s hard to ditch paper simply by going cold turkey. To kick the addiction, you need to find a viable substitute for the sweetness on which you’ve grown dependent.

Here at Conveyer, we’re helping companies to do just that, by making existing documentation intuitively discoverable for a new generation of employees, customers, and end-users. Using our AI tools, businesses can rapidly turn existing paper or PDF assets such as product manuals into dynamic digital experiences accessed simply by scanning a QR code — helping them to unlock new value, drive customer engagement, and tap rich new sources of actionable data. 

America’s businesses have done the hard work of building out digital processes. But to unlock the power of digitization, we need to make one more push, and truly kick our addiction to paper. 

If you’re ready to take that leap, and start driving truly paperless digital processes across your entire business, then Conveyer is here to help. Get in touch with our team today to find out more.