Where are we with the paperless office?

17th November 2014

Paper use is still falling, but only 1-2% per year.

Imagine a world where you can "call up documents from files on the screen, or by pressing a button", or get "mail or any messages" from a "TV-display terminal with keyboard".

These were the thoughts, in 1975, of George E Pake, the head of Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center, when quizzed by BusinessWeek on what the office of the future would look like. Predicting "a revolution in the office over the next 20 years", he pretty much nailed it except for one detail. "I don't know how much hard copy [printed paper] I'll want in this world."

Ah, the paperless office. It has been the holy grail of the stationery cupboard for the last three decades, but its repeated failure to arrive is as big a letdown as the perennial office party.

So will we ever reach the promised land? Not in a hurry, according to Tim Bowler, the director of the National Association of Paper Merchants. Since 2000, he says, paper use, office paper, cardboard, loo rolls etc across the UK has fallen by only 1% a year on average. (Last year the figure was 9%, but that was due to the recession, he stresses.)

"Businesses are keeping better records and this often means printing out a hard copy of emails and digital documents so they can be securely stored." Elsewhere, paper use is being "pushed down the line to the end consumer. For example, we now receive many of our utility bills online and print them off at home. As a result, you see people picking up a packet of A4 paper in the supermarket. You would never have seen that a decade ago."

So much, then, for that modern mantra:

"Please consider the environment before printing this email."

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