New Study Shows that 'Go Paperless – Go Green' Claims Fall Flat
According to a recent “nudge” campaign by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), marketing messages touting the environmental benefits of going paperless are falling on deaf ears. The results of the CRA campaign show that such green claims have little impact on the consumer’s choice for switching from paper to online options.
In the CRA campaign, tax payers were encouraged to file online and eliminate paper filing. A nudge campaign involves using soft messages to “nudge” the audience to make desired choices. In this case, the campaign used different messages ranging from no specific environmental messaging to strong environmental messaging - including a promise to plant a tree when switching to online filing.
The results show that environmental messaging was no more effective than generic messaging, with the nudge campaign having a negligible impact of about 1% increase in online filing.
Why aren’t the ‘go-green’ marketing slogans effective?
There are three key reasons that could explain why paperless environmental marketing claims are ineffective:
- Many people prefer or need paper documents
A 2017 U.S. consumer survey showed that over 75% of Americans see printed documents as safer, more secure and trusted. These findings are not surprising given the increase in recent years of identity theft, privacy breaches, fake news and hacking.
Many people also prefer paper for ease of reading and managing finances, as a reminder to pay bills, or for archiving purposes. As a result of the digital push, about 35% of people say that they print electronic documents at home or at the office. Hence, corporations that are eliminating paper-based options are passing paper and printing costs to many of their customers. In the end, the life cycle of many online bills and statements is not paperless.
There are also millions who actually need and rely on paper statements, including those without Internet access or those who lack the skills and ability to go online, such as many seniors and disabled persons. 
- Consumers have become better educated in recognizing the truthfulness of corporate environmental claims
Most consumers know that green claims are designed to attract them online so that their corporate service providers can save costs. So, for a consumer that prefers or wants paper copies, this means less value for their money. That makes many people skeptical about the message, as confirmed by consumer surveys done in the US and the UK :
- 85% of U.S. consumers believe that “Go Paperless” claims are designed for companies to save costs.
- 80% did not think it was appropriate for companies to cite environmentalism when it is not their real motive.
- 50% or more of respondents don’t believe, feel misled or question “go paperless, go green” claims.
The misleading aspect of most paperless marketing slogans also fails to meet the requirements of many published environmental guidelines and laws, such as the Green Guides of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) , the Competition Bureau of Canada, and the ISO14021 standard. All these publications specify that vague claims (such as “green”) should not be used and that claims must be specific and require substantiation based on recognized scientific methods.
- Electronic communication has its own environmental impacts
In the past 10 years, there has been an increase in public awareness about the environmental impacts of our large and growing electronic infra-structure, partly due to media stories on this topic. Hence, many people realize that the switch from paper to digital is not free of impacts, as many corporations make it seem. It is associated with an increased use of non-renewable resources, energy consumption and e-waste.
Conversely, a 2017 consumer survey suggests that the majority of people do not see paper as a “bad” product. In fact, 91% of U.S. respondents agreed that, when responsibly produced, used and recycled, print and paper can be a sustainable way to communicate. This could be because paper has some unique sustainable features: it is based on a renewable resource and is highly recycled, especially when compared to electronics.
Are companies changing their marketing tactics?
The findings of the new CRA study adds a key element to our global Two Sides anti-greenwash campaign. It tells us that: not only are paperless green claims misleading, they are also ineffective from a marketing point of view.
The above points make up the key reasons why over 107 North American corporations and 275 globally have agreed to change their messaging and remove misleading environmental claims to promote digital over paper. These organizations decided to focus their marketing messaging on the convenience and practicality of electronic services, rather than green claims. It looks like the CRA will also follow suit.
Organizations need to comply with marketing guidelines and laws as a minimum, and they need to be held accountable if they don’t. They also need to provide their customers with value and a clear choice of what works best for them. This means paper-based communications at no additional charge unless the customer gives specific permission for the switch to digital.
Phil has over 28 years of international experience related to sustainability and the forest products industry. He currently leads Two Sides North America, a non-profit that promotes the unique sustainable features of print and paper, as well as their responsible production and use. Two Sides operates globally in five continents with members that span the entire graphic communication value chain. Phil has written extensively on sustainability and environmental topics related to the forest products sector. He received his Bachelor and Master's of Science degrees from McGill University in Montreal. He is a private forest owner and sustainably manages over 200 acres of forestland for both recreational and economic benefits.