We’ve been told to aim for the paperless office in business for many years now, not just to cut down on storage space, but to maintain client confidentiality in an era of hot-desking. The other major reason we’ve been told to go paperless is that it’s good for the environment and saves trees. Or is it?

The reason that going paperless may not be such a good idea for the environment is a simple question of economics – supply and demand. The huge forests in North America are essential for global supply of the raw materials required to make paper, not to mention providing an income for the people that own the land. Just as supply is slowed or stopped if demand for a product dries up, should less paper be required, these areas will never be replanted, and will eventually be given over to urban development.

Forest areas are used for far more than paper, of course; there’s a thriving market for pulps that are used both in textile production and in making fuel pellets, and some areas, the tree harvest is stable, or even growing. So where does the problem lie? The answer is in the Southern US states, where the tree stock is largely destined for the paper industry.

The recent decline in consumption of paper has had a significant impact, with five southern states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, producing more than three-quarters of the wood for paper stock. With initiatives to replace every felled tree with two new saplings, it’s not hard to see how the new growth rate is plummeting.

It’s not just concerns over consumption either; our increasing reliance and desire to conduct business via smartphones and other mobile devices means that we’re not printing as much as we were even a decade ago. If replanting harvested areas isn’t economically viable for landowners, they are more likely to consider alternative uses for their land. The less demand there is for timber, the lower the price will be.

Wood is a tremendously valuable resource; both as a source for paper and to provide an income for the forest landowners. Even the huge market for recycled paper products relies on the forests to exist. In short, the only way that the forests will at least remain, if not grow, for future generations is to keep the demand steady. So go ahead and print that email – you could be saving a tree.

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