Towards a Paperless Office

It’s Raining PaperThe paperless office idea emerged along with the personal computer, its premise being that someday in the future, we will no longer need to use paper because everything will be in a digital format. While the truly paperless office may still be a myth and a seemingly impossible goal, it is still something we can move towards in our business operations. Paper and paperboard products constitute the largest portion of our waste stream, so reducing our paper use and recycling paper materials has a lot of potential to reduce the waste flowing into landfills and save trees at the same time.

While planning my business, I have been trying to find a few ways I can be a nearly paperless operation. I already send digital PDF files for invoices, agreements, and proofs rather than sending my clients paper documents. I use digital signatures for contracts, communicate via e-mail or phone, and avoid printing anything that I don’t absolutely need to. Still, my office is hardly paperless and there’s a lot more I plan to do as I formalize my practices and launch my business. Below are some suggestions for going paperless.

Digital Filing and Record Keeping

Paper files stack up quickly, and can easily take over a small office. Digitizing every document that you can helps reduce clutter as well as waste. Most of the work that I do starts on the computer, and there’s really no reason it needs to leave the digital world until the final printing (for printed pieces) or at all (for web-based projects). Digital file sharing and collaboration software such as Basecamp can help keep communication between team members and clients in the digital realm. PDFs and other digital documents can be used for contracts, agreements, and invoices. Online databases can be used to file and store business documents, and are easy to back up. Dragging and dropping files in a computer interface is certainly easier than lifting and moving boxes and filing cabinets full of paper!

With the right mix of software, digital storage space, databases, and bookkeeping skills, you can do most of your business record keeping digitally. Once a system is in place, digital files and records can be very easy to maintain. And no trees have to be harmed! More green document management ideas can be found elsewhere on Ecopreneurist.

Faxing, Copying, and Alternatives

The copier and fax machine are found in nearly every office, usually accompanied by a stack of discarded paper. While I doubt these machines are going away any time soon, one way to reduce energy usage and still be able to make faxes and copies with ease is to purchase an all-in-one machine that can handle printing, scanning, copying, and faxing. And as with printing, be conscious of the paper you’re using and if it’s really necessary to make paper copies of a document that you could just as easily send digitally. A good tip from PC Magazine regarding printing or making copies is to always preview your document digitally before hitting the print button. Making sure a printer or copier is set up correctly and previewing the document can prevent unwanted copies that are later discarded.

Alternatives to faxing such as eFax services have been discussed previously on Ecopreneurist. With new technologies emerging, hopefully fax machines will soon be a thing of the past.


I’m a designer with a bit of a magazine fetish. I’m sure I’m not the only one with boxes and stacks of magazines in my office relating to my industry. I tend to be a magazine pack rat. Recently I began cutting down on the number of magazines that I subscribe to, choosing to keep subscriptions to publications with a commitment to using recycled or sustainable paper. And one of these days I’ll recycle my magazine collection in favor of online versions of my favorite articles. Online e-zines, blogs, and PDF versions of printed magazines are becoming more and more popular, both as a replacement for and a supplement to printed publications. One recent example is ReadyMade Magazine’s April/May 2008 issue, which is entirely digital with a magazine-like online interface. I see magazines and other publications moving in this direction. With the advent of hand-held devices that can make reading blogs, news, and other online content even easier, publications are taking on a new digital form, much to the delight of trees everywhere.

So, in the spirit of going paperless, try condensing your magazine collection down, scanning and saving anything really important so you can easily refer to it later. Recycle old copies of publications and seek them out online instead. If your business publishes a newsletter, magazine, or annual report, consider taking it digital. Not only will you save paper and money by not printing, but your publication will be easy to access and update.

Paper = Trees

In your quest to reduce paper usage in your office, one thing to keep reminding yourself and your staff is that paper wasted translates to trees killed. Keep the big picture in mind on your journey towards a paperless office and instill eco-consciousness into every decision you make. When you think of trees every time you see paper, it makes your decisions to save paper easier. Saving paper saves trees, and we certainly need all the trees we can get. Be sure that when you do need to use paper, you use recycled or tree-free paper. There are many sustainable paper options available to make both you and the trees happy. Of course, reduce always comes before recycle, so it’s important to reduce paper usage as a first step on your journey to a paperless office.

This article is the ninth in a series called Green Dreams following my journey starting a green design business. You can learn along with me: read the series introduction, see some green business resources, get inspired, learn how to write a business plan, find out how to name your business, learn why sustainability should be a part of your planning from the beginning, avoid commuting by working from home, and building green business practices into your daily workflow. Stay tuned for more on starting a green business!

Photo by Jason Sussberg via flickr.

About the Author

I grew up camping and hiking in the woods of Idaho, leading to a connection with and deep respect for nature. I recently moved to the Mendocino coast in Northern California, where I was happy to find not only beautiful redwoods and beaches, but a high level of green consciousness. I am a graphic and web designer who focuses on making the world a better place through sustainable design and communication. I specialize in green design solutions for small businesses, non-profits, and activist organizations. When I'm not designing, I'm hiking, camping, traveling, taking pictures, blogging, and spending time with my boyfriend and our "fur-kids." You can find out more about me on my sites and blogs: my personal site,, or unplug magazine.
  • Health care professionals waste a scary amount of paper. I am so burdened with my regular work of caring for chronically ill uninsured patients that I just can’t take on the business of fighting city hall and trying to get everyone to use less paper. We don’t even recycle at work. Instead, I often bring home paper to add to my own recycling bin. And when I get quarterly productivity reports or quarterly meeting reports (usually 15-20 pages), I save the paper and use it for grocery lists and to-do lists. Perhaps I should add ‘ask medical director to convert meeting reports to pdfs instead of paper’ to my to-do list.

  • Hi Megan,

    You’re absolutely right! More publishers are going online with their publication.
    Reason being the magazine can be looks alike online.
    I have a better example here.

    – Fred

  • Rachel M.

    Great ideas, Megan…thanks!

  • Tracy Miller

    I love doing things the digital way. It’s a great time-saver and helps to reduce paper waste. We are using Wrike at work. It helps us to share and store files, e-mail threads, etc. We print out things very rarely, since all the relevant materials are shares with all the members of the team on the Web.

  • Tara Landry

    Hi Megan,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. I think a lot of what is standing in the way of the paperless office is just habit, once people make changes to their routine they’ll be amazed at what they can save. A couple of other interesting factors with regards to Internet fax is not only can it be a big step toward becoming paperless but it also reduces time and space with regard to document filing. MyFax currently has a promotion where we are offering 3 months of service in return for a recycled fax receipt. Details can be found at

  • Thanks for the comments and suggestions, everyone! It’s good to hear that there are others working to make the paperless office “myth” a reality. 🙂

  • I think a big part of going paperless is e-mail — e-mail needs to be more reliable. Right now, if you send an e-mail, there’s a good chance it won’t get through because of overzealous spam filters, etc. Also if you receive an e-mail there’s no way to be sure who sent it…

    I try to pay as many of my bills electronically as possible. I almost think they should increase the cost of stamps and postage — then maybe people and companies would stop sending so many pointless things in the mail.

  • I forgot about paying bills online! One thing I’ve done recently is take all my bills “paperless” – it’s nice that many companies are offering this option now. Thanks for the suggestion, Patrick. Paperless billing is a great way to take paper out of the waste stream every month.

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  • Your artice is indeed very relevant Megan, and you have grasped the issues of paperlessness. Look at another fresh aspect of paperless work- and lifestyles in a new book “Paperless Joy” available from Amazon and at:

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  • Yes, a completely paperless office is dependent on many variables, a lot of which are still too uncertain. There is some good document management software out there, such as ArkWorks, to get us going.

  • sam

    If we could have a monitor that resembled a thin magazine/piece of paper that would be good. I can only read online for so long because of the glare of the monitor.

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  • Earth Day was this week and I saw a lot of people going the extra mile by riding their bike to work or carpooling. That is great, but a great idea for making the world a greener place is sitting right under your nose. Literally! Look at all the paper sitting on or inside your desk. Imagine if all of that was saved on your hard-drive (and backed up somewhere too)?

    You would save time finding the right files because you could then just type a quick search. You could share with anyone via the network or an email attachment. Going paperless is a great way to go.

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  • Paperless Office Systems have really come down in price and these systems combined with a good document scanner such as a Fujitsu Scan Snap are all you need to dramatically reduce the amount of paper in any organization. Here is a link to a white paper on how you can get started

  • Eliminating paper from our company has saved us time and a lot of money. We thought that going green was going to cost us money, but landed up saving us in the long run

  • Koby

    Thanks for covering the topic of going paperless. It seems like the trend is slowly catching on, and hopefully we’ll realize the financial and environmental positive impacts sooner rather than later. In any case, doing more than what you’re currently doing helps. So just make yourself make the change…it’s not very difficult to switch. For an extensive review of #2 (faxing alternatives), please check out

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  • It looks like some of these issues you are encountering when your file could be solved by using software to keep track of your files. You can try The Paper Tiger Filing System to help you better keep track of your files. Give it a try! We are a BBB A-Rated business and are always looking for ways to help people file!

  • It looks like some of the issues you are encountering when you file could be solved by using software to keep track of your files. You can try The Paper Tiger Filing system to help you better keep track of your files. Give it a try! We are BBB A-Rated business and are always looking for ways to help people file!

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  • Can’t find information like this all the time. Good stuff.

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  • Megan – thanks for this article, it was instrumental in helping our office get started with our paperless migration.

    Thank You

    • In an effort to move forward with a paperless office, MetroFax has extended their services to include mobile devices. A free App is already available for iphone and soon to be released for the android market as well.

      • Before we moved to Online Fax, we had tonnes of paper clutter to deal with and we had absolutely no control over what to print and what to discard. Online Fax allowed us to clean the mess up. Zero paper. Zero maintenance and 100% productivity.

  • Spot on! Fax machines already are a thing of past in my office. We wanted to cut down our costs and get rid of the paper clutter so we switched to Online Fax. No more filling up the paper tray every few days or wrestling with the fax machine to fix paper jams. The best part is that we can choose what to print and what to discard.

  • My company, FaxLogic, provides virtual fax and digital document management service to companies in a wide range of fields and over a wide range of company sizes. What we have found is that the larger the organization, the harder it is to reduce or eliminate unnecessary use of paper at a “global level”. What we instead try to do is focus on specific workflows that currently have a paper component (for example, many companies receive faxes on a conventional fax machine, only to have the resulting paper scanned in and shredded almost immediately; or the same thing in reverse–printing out a document only to fax it manually and then shredding it). By focusing on specific workflows, we let the company make small, manageable changes to “how things are done”, and eliminate or reduce the paper component from the workflow, one workflow at a time. This has proven to be a much more successful approach than trying to make global changes all at once.

    A comment on the whole idea of “paperless”: As much as I would personally like to see every company be more environmentally friendly, that is and should not really be the primary driver. Paperless for the sake of paperless has proven over and over to not be a way to make lasting change. Instead, it’s better to focus on what other material benefits can be gained in a particular business process (reduction in manual work, increased accuracy, better security, etc.), where reduction or even elimination of paper is a desirable side-effect.

    A comment on fax machines: There is no doubt that the traditional analog fax machine is obsolete in today’s digital world. But the utility it provides of being able to easily send a paper original to someone else in a single step remains a useful and valuable function. At FaxLogic, we have no particular vested interest in whether our customers use a fax machine or not (we are in the document management business, and businesses will always have and need to manage and share documents, whether they are faxes, paper, or digital). In fact, many of our customers use scanners to handle their paper documents. But, for a great many businesses, analog fax machines are not only an intrinsic part of existing workflows, but also represent a substantial investment in equipment and training. To that end, we created a small “adapter” (the Internet Fax Adapter) lets you connect any traditional fax machine to the Internet (via your local area network), turning it into a smart scanner. We thereby allow our customers to use any combination of fax machines, scanners, and multi-function printers, along with email and web-based digital documents. And as their needs change, they may move from fax machines to scanners or multi-function machines, but we don’t force that move, instead letting them take it at their own pace.

    By the way, a typical scenario for us is that a customer will keep and continue to use most or all of their existing fax machines (made into “digital scanners” by our adapter, and also reducing telecom costs by eliminating the associated phone lines), mostly using them for scanning/sending of paper originals; while incoming faxes are delivered directly into their FaxLogic account and/or via email. That represents a quick start to paper-use reduction, without requiring new investment in equipment, immediate changes to workflows, or retraining of staff.

  • My earliest steps towards a paperless office actually came a few years ago, when I went to electronic statements for my banks and credit cards. However, up until the beginning of 2010, the filing system for my business consisted of big binders or folders into which I would slip the printed copies of those statements along with a ton of other paperwork. Now, as the statements come in my email as PDFs or are downloaded from the bank or credit card company website, I save them directly into special folders in my Dropbox.

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