The paperless society has been touted for decades, but paper’s use has been growing for millennia. With the growing capabilities, convenience and mobility, of new technologies reaching maturity, are we finally seeing a tipping point toward a society of less paper?

What is changing?

It has taken several decades since the advent of PCs and the first suggestion of a paperless society, but total paper consumption in North America has started to wane with a 24% drop between 2006 and 2009 and still no return to 2006 levels. The UK has been slower to reduce its consumption, but since 2000 their paper use has declined by at least 1% each year and 9% in 2009. Microsoft says they have helped some organizations reduce their paper use by as much as 95%. Some of the drop in paper is due to organizations finding ways to conserve money during the recession, but the organizations are likely to maintain these new methods. Besides the significant long term savings in cost, time, and space, the digital office also benefits from the ease of searching more quickly for the right document and sharing the necessary documents with any authorized user anywhere in the world. A digital office therefore makes telepresence, whether virtual conferencing or employee telecommuting, much more feasible with its own cost, time, and space savings.

Humanity’s affection for paper is deeply ingrained in almost every aspect of modern life from work to art to holiday greetings. However, desktop publishing, email , online banking, e-signatures, cloud computing, tablets, and other digital technologies have enabled businesses, consumers, and governments to significantly reduce their paper use if the individuals using these technologies are willing to do without paper.

So what is taking so long? As with any transition, holdouts remain. The legal system is a large part of the problem. Although electronic signatures are legally acceptable in the US, EU, and various nations around the world, an ink signed paper contract remains more credible for some people in certain circumstances. Likewise, printed paper forms like bills, which can easily be managed online, are often still needed to prove the identity of individuals applying for immigration, banking, etc.

Christmas card sales in the US have plummeted from 2.7 billion in 1995 to 1.5 billion 2011, but greeting cards on the whole have had a recent resurgence. Although digital media have provided great avenues for sharing information, the greeting card industry has adapted by making multimedia cards, expanding the purpose and target market of greeting cards, and outdoing other avenues of communication for sharing the emotions of a special occasion.

Culturally, paper still maintains a special place for society, but one of the largest hurdles to more significant reductions in paper use is generational because younger people tend to use digital more than older people. Gen Y and every generation after are often called digital natives because they will grow up knowing digital technology as a primary form of information consumption and communication. Two surveys, one in the UK and one in the US, showed similar results: university students are studying more on electronic devices and student ownership of tablets and e-readers is growing. 63% of UK students said they learned more effectively on mobile devices than with textbooks or other paper based forms. In the US, 7 in 10 university students said they expected tablets/ e-readers to replace printed textbooks within the next 5 years. These statistics indicate an impending drop in demand for printed textbooks and greater incentive for teachers to upload handouts, tests, and other materials they would usually print. As the younger generations graduate, they will be expecting to use similarly efficient methods instead of learning wasteful and time consuming paper based procedures in the workplace.

Even more telling is the decline in consumer printer sales. From 2008-2012, consumer printer revenues have fallen about 25%, and even HP has seen a decline of 15%. While the rise of tablets/ e-readers does not equate to a decline in paper use, the drop in printer sales suggests that consumers are gradually learning to go without hardcopies.

Why is this important?

Around the world, demand for paper continues to grow, but a tipping point is on the horizon as the North American market suggests. A paperless society will be unattainable for many decades, and even the 100% paperless office is next to impossible. Tablets and e-readers, because of their mobility and convenience, will eventually impact the book and magazine publishing industry more significantly just as the internet did to news services.

Where once computers and the internet increased paper usage because people desired hardcopies of digital documents, electronics and paper are now balancing and equalizing. Society is learning to rely less on tactile experiences and embrace virtual ones, and those institutions which still require hardcopies and faxes will have to adjust as society becomes equally reliant on both paper and digital resources. Paper may not be dying, but it is being tamed.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis Draeger, a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow, is a global citizen currently based in New Zealand. After finishing his master’s in Futures Studies at University of Houston, his foresight consulting portfolio has grown to include work with SMEs, government agencies, and global corporations while partnering with Shaping Tomorrow, Research for Tomorrow Today and Next Corporation. He now heads up Aiglatson Foresight Research.