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Xerox, printers and the paperless office

The giant printer and copier company details how declining use of paper is affecting its long-term vision and recaps latest achievements in energy, waste-to-landfill reduction.

I read somewhere this week where we've been using the term "paperless office" since 1975, to refer to the idea that businesses could run more efficiently while eliminating ream upon ream of wasted trees. Little did we know then that it would take a worldwide economic downturn (three decades later) and the accompanying rise of the corporate sustainability movement to get companies to finally take action to cover up their paper trails. Not that we have eliminated paper by any stretch of the imagination, but the pendulum is finally swinging in the right direction.

Depending on how you choose to look at it, printing technology companies -- notably the monsters in this category such as Hewlett-Packard and Xerox -- could view this as a threat or as an opportunity to rewrite their business. Both of these players, it so happens, have chosen the latter route, and this week it is Xerox's turn to weigh in progress toward same with its 2010 Report on Global Citizenship.

In her letter introducing the report, Xerox CEO and Chairman Ursula Burns notes that the economic downturn prompted Xerox to heighten its focus on environmental and sustainability initiatives and to accept that some things will never be the same as in the past. She writes:

"Although the worst impacts of the economic downturn may have begun to recede, some of the consequences are likely to have a long-term impact -- not all of it bad.

Let me cite just one example in our business. In an effort to reduce costs over the past few years, most financial services companies pushed their customers to accept online statements as an alternative to paper statements. Some went so far as to charge for paper. That type of transactional printing -- a lot of it done by Xerox -- is not coming back.

You might think that's of concern to us. In fact, it is not. Our services business is very adept at helping our customers move from paper to digital documents. It's a wonderful version of the triple bottom-line. It saves money for our customers. It makes money for Xerox. And it makes for a greener world for all of us."

Xerox attributes some of its own recent reductions in carbon emissions to the economic downturn. In 2002, the company said it would work toward a 10 percent reduction in absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. It actually updated that goal to 25 percent in 2006. Through 2009 it managed a 31 percent reduction, a milestone it achieved by cutting electricity consumption of 21 percent during that same time period. Ultimately, Xerox has set its sights on carbon-neutrality.

Some other highlights of Xerox's most recent progress:

  • 92 percent of Xerox's latest product generation, including its Xerox 700 Digital Color Press, meets the updated Energy Star requirements from July 2009; that's up 12 percent from the previous year.
  • Xerox achieved zero-waste-to-landfill status for its EA toner plant in Webster, N.Y.; the corporate goal is to increase the recycling/reuse to 97 percent by 2012.
  • In November, the company expanded its relationship with Close the Loop to provide more returns and recycling options for customers needing to dispose of imaging supplies and other consumables.

It has not escaped my notice that many of my most popular posts, historically, on this blog and my other one on ZDNet, GreenTech Pastures, have to do with the paperless office. Here are just a few examples:

Am I naive enough to think that paper is totally going away or that Xerox really wants it to do so? Not on your life. I am a perfect example of that, as I still need to refer to certain reference materials in hard format (although I am trying to use my iPad more as an alternate to that). It will take years for this transition to occur. Fortunately for its shareholders, Xerox has chosen to embrace rather than resist that transition.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com