Green-Speak from Companies – What’s in it for Consumers?

by Darwin on October 23, 2009

I logged into my AT&T account the other day (forced customer due to iPhone) and there was a prompt asking if I wanted paperless billing.  I’ve been receiving multiple notices from other companies I pay bills too as well (in some cases, they actually send a paper notice telling me about it separate from my monthly bill- how ironic!).  While they cite the environment and how we should make the world a better place, the reality is that there are economic benefits to the company – and they make no efforts to share them with customers.  My question is why they don’t entice greater participation from customers with economic incentives to them as well?

While I’m just as much about energy conservation and waste reduction as the next guy, there are some times I need to choose organization and convenience over green – or I need to choose cost over green.  I drive my car instead of riding a bike. Sometimes I use a paper plate.  Conversely, I reuse the plastic bag that we collect recyclables in and then go collect the trash around the house in the same bag instead of wasting it.  We drive fuel-efficient cars.  I follow these home energy savings tips.  There are choices we make based on where our line is drawn.

When I can be enticed by certain measures to push me over the line, I switch.  For instance, when I was a cashier at a grocery store, many people would bring in their used shopping bags and I had to discount them 2 cents each.  Perhaps the company saves a penny or two per bag and associated storage/stocking fees and the customers feel like at least there’s something in it for them economically.  Were it not for the 2 cents, the participation rate would be much lower.  Now, my wife brings these reinforced bags shopping and gets no reimbursement, but I’m sure if they implemented something similar at stores in our area, more people would partake.

Back to this Paperless Billing thing though since it’s being pitched by virtually every company.  I have a system of how I pay my bills as outlined in my personal efficiency article.  I collect bills throughout the month and pay them at a certain time to decrease the net amount of time I spend performing administrative tasks each month.  If I’m going to stop receiving bills and instead, have to go onto the web to see my bills each month or receive emails from several companies with billing amounts and have to organize all that data without missing a payment, that’s a major inconvenience for me.  That’s a new system and requires effort on my part to not slip up.

Perhaps given the right economic incentive, I can change my habits.

The cost of administrative staff, printing, the paper itself, distribution, postage, etc., adds up to well over 50 cents per mailing, probably a dollar in many cases.  For sake of argument, let’s call it 60 cents. If corporate America was really invested in this green movement, they would actually seek to maximize the conversion to paperless billing, even if it meant forgoing some of their own cost savings.  Let’s say they shared the cost savings and offered say, 50 cents to each customer accepting paperless billing.  I pay about 16 bills per month.  That’s $8 per month, which is ~$100 per year of after-tax money back.  For $100 each year for life, perhaps I could accept some inconvenience to become compliant with this new billing/payment system.  For free?  Forget it.

No, the reality is what companies sometimes do is either just flat-out switch you to paperless billing without your consent (my last mortgage company did this), or they just tack on some sort of surcharge for NOT using paperless billing.  They want the full benefit of appearing to be “green”, plus realize the full cost savings incurred while inconveniencing their customers.

This feigned “green” attitude by companies is often completely disingenuous, unsupported by their actions and they could actually go much further to both reduce waste and generate some nominal cost savings withing their billing costs if they simply shared the rewards with their customers.  Look, I’m not about creating waste for no reason or not doing my part, but the reality is that often times, the only way to motivate change on a broad scale is through economic incentives.

What do you think?  What’s your price?  Why aren’t companies doing this?

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1 Mark Wolfinger October 23, 2009 at 1:45 pm

One time a received an offer of $5 to go paperless.
I told them my price was $50, but never heard back from them.

2 rp October 25, 2009 at 7:08 pm

I find it interesting that you seem to imply that the companies are doing something “wrong” by not offering to share their savings with you. Do you do the same? If you switch from a name brand ketchup to a store ketchup, would you be willing to share part of your savings with the name brand?

You seem to suggest you should not do any thing “green” unless some one pays you to convert your processes… while I understand that in fact that is probably the majority attitude in the US (both privately and by companies), one could argue that the “price” you would pay now for converting should be considered an investment that pays dividends in the future.

3 Darwin October 25, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Hi RP,
I don’t think taking on green initiatives is wrong at all. Some companies actually voluntarily sought to reduce CFC emissions before mandated by regulations or they decided to install solar power which has a lengthy payoff – that’s fine; but it had no detrimental impact on the customers.

What is wrong in my example is the disingenuous nature in which they are communicating their intentions. When a company says, “Due to the overwhelming response from our surveys indicating green initiatives are important to our customers, we are no longer sending paper bills”, to me that’s a bunch of BS. First of all, what customers are clamoring to be inconvenienced with nothing in return. Second of all, at least provide an option – oh besides charging me more now for a paper bill that used to be part of my initial price. They’re simply cutting costs and passing on the inconvenience to the customers.

Regarding whether a consumer decides to purchase a generic or brand name, I don’t think the analogy fits so I can’t reply in the context of this article. I think that’s a consumer preference issue whereby they have to decide if it’s worth paying a premium for a brand-name product. That’s their choice though and if they feel there is a differentiation, then the value proposition supports the premium. If the generic is viewed as equivalent, there’s no reason to buy brand name.

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