Reducing Paper Use Saves Money… and Maybe Even the Planet

by Michael T. Hillary
Clifton Gunderson LLP

From the White House to the classroom and the corporate boardroom, everyone is talking “green”—green jobs, green energy, green farming, green cars and green construction. At the same time, politicians and the public are demanding eco-friendly products and processes, and businesses are meeting the demand with innovative solutions that make ecological and economic sense.

Among those taking up the green cause are document-intensive, paper-hungry organizations like accounting firms. They are joining the green revolution by launching initiatives designed to reduce paper consumption and lessen the impact of paper manufacturing on the environment. In the process, so-called “paperless offices” are saving money by improving the efficiency and quality of their work and enhancing customer service.

Why reduce paper consumption?

The average American office worker uses close to 10,000 sheets of paper a year, for a total of 27 pounds each. Worldwide, more than 300 million tons of paper are produced each year, consuming 300 million forested acres and requiring huge amounts of chemicals, pesticides, energy and water. Reducing paper consumption lessens the worldwide environmental impact of the paper industry and keeps millions of tons of waste out of landfills.

“Paperless” has been an idea since the first days of computers and digital information storage. Early promoters thought that every document and piece of correspondence could be created and stored electronically. In the real world, however, it is nearly impossible to become entirely paperless. So instead of trying to eliminate paper, companies are taking measures to consume substantially less paper using new technologies and new ways of thinking about the way we work.

Less is more
The transition to a paperless environment can be a daunting task, but progress is evident in a number of business sectors. A benchmark study by the American Accounting Association revealed that 73 percent of responding accounting firms maintain their contact/prospect lists electronically, eliminating file folders, print-outs and filing cabinets. The same survey said 79 percent of the firms surveyed are producing financial statements via electronic links between their audit application and the reports, eliminating the cost, time and duplication of re-keying data. Furthermore, 73 percent of firms say they are linking their audit applications to their tax applications and electronically transferring trial balance information.

Paper reduction advocates report improvements in the quality and efficiency of their work. For accounting firms, the production of work papers, financial statements and tax returns is quicker, easier, and more accessible using computers. Documents can be linked electronically to a specific client, eliminating hardcopies that can be misfiled, lost or accidentally destroyed. Because all documents are electronically stored, regularly backed up and centrally located, disaster recovery is faster and more complete.

Going paperless is a process, not an event
Before embarking on a paperless initiative, be forewarned that many will resist the move, maintaining the belief that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The best way to overcome this resistance is by educating employees who will be affected by the change. Get them on board prior to the roll-out by helping them to better understand the benefits of working digitally. The implementation team has the opportunity to set expectations and diminish the element of surprise, giving employees time to digest the upcoming changes.

There are several critical steps in the implementation process:

  • Doing your homework. Research best practices to understand the complete process from start to finish. Talk to other companies, vendors and workers who have insight and experience in implementation. Consider the impact of paper reduction on all business functions, from project management to payroll processing and accounts payable/receivable.
  • Choosing the right team. The right team, led by the right person, makes all the difference in developing and executing a paper reduction initiative. Your team should include experts in technology and work processes. The project should also have a champion who can address concerns and reinforce benefits throughout the process.
  • Developing a timeline. Once the team is in place, it is important to determine a timeline for integration of the new system, how easily it will integrate with current systems, who it will affect, and how it will affect them. A phased-in approach often gains greater support than an intensive, all-at-once effort. Without a defined timeline and a project leader to manage it, the project may lose focus and never reach its full potential.
  • Integrating with current systems. Choosing applications and hardware that integrate seamlessly with current systems is always the goal. Unfortunately, it is not always possible. Your implementation team should be conscious of the time and effort needed to convert current systems and build those factors into the budget and timeline.

What’s next in the quest for green? As companies large and small strive to become more efficient, improve quality, reduce costs and enhance customer service, more and more are exploring the benefits of paper reduction. Why? Because they know that it’s good for the environment…and the bottom line. iBi

Michael T. Hillary, CPA, is an assurance partner in Clifton Gunderson’s Peoria office and a champion of the company’s paperless initiative.