“As part of our ongoing effort to be environmentally friendly, Bell is making e-bill our standard method of delivering bills to our Internet customers. As you are currently receiving e-bill, this change will not affect you and no action is required on your part. If you decide to receive a paper bill, effective June 2012, a $2 monthly fee will apply.”
The above notice starts with the pretense of environmental friendliness and finishes with a sharp jab that forces forward memories of recent price increases, poor customer service and other niggling charges. And even someone who is not subject to the proposed fee wonders about the motivations behind it, and whether such a charge is ethical.
Companies that adopted the paper billing charge earlier than Bell have in some cases reconsidered the charge, but not without public outcry.
On his blog, networkworld, Paul McNamara called T-mobile’s (2009) proposed (and subsequently squelched) $1.50 paper billing charge a “gouge,” and railed against it.
Is electronic billing really environmentally friendly?
“If T-mobile is truly environmentally friendly” Anon wrote, “they [sic] will insist its customers get 100% recycled paper bills with bio-degradable ink instead of using paperless billing on the internet.” Furthermore, “[t]he use of the internet has its own negative impact on the environment. The amount of electricity needed to run the internet and computers is more harmful to the environment than the ink and paper T-mobile uses for paper bills.”
And while Anon does not point out that printing also consumes electricity, he raised a valid point about the costs of electricity consumption and the fact that electronic components in computers, including those forming the internet’s backbone, contain known toxins and carcinogens (chemicals include beryllium, lead, chromium, and mercury), or suspected toxins such as brominated flame retardants (BFRs), used to coat plastics. However, according to the experts at PC Magazine, the known chemicals above are safely sealed inside your computer, harm comes to the environment and humans only with improper disposal and handling of the hazardous material.
Another respondent going by the name Plaintalk, asks: If you cannot have your bill on paper, then when is it okay to send paper? Only for advertising? And how is it that participating companies make no concessions given these one-sided policies that increase customers’ costs?
“Once you’ve purchased a computer at your expense and maintained internet access at your expense,” Plaintalk says, “they will be able to advertise via your email basically FOR FREE,” and “If you don’t access YOUR email in a timely manner they get to charge you for being late with your payment…such a deal!”
Reversing billing expenses
Spurred by Bell’s notice, here’s my question: If $2 is the cost of printing a bill, and of environmental laxity, then shouldn’t the environmentally friendly customers get a $2 discount? Never mind that the true cost of printing a bill should rest with the company who wants you to pay the bill, aren’t billing-related costs already included in your bill — factored in as a business cost?
But who will really challenge the practice of reversing the expense of printing a paper bill? This reversal benefits companies preferring to greenwash — practicing disinformation in order to present an environmentally responsible public image — because in the end it generates more “green” in revenues.
Bell says in its online legal write-up for electronic billing: “It is your responsibility to ensure you have the appropriate hardware and software, or Internet access services, to allow proper use of the Services, and to notify Bell Canada should there be any difficulty in accessing your bill. Any additional costs associated with the Services shall be borne by you.” What it does not mention are concessions for those additional costs, though it is aware of such.
Five years ago when Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc.(Primus) started charging $0.50 to receive paper bills, it credited its e-billed customers $0.50 in order to “encourage additional customers to switch to paperless billing.” It took a slightly different tack from Bell and its major competitors, Telus (2010) and Rogers (2011), which combine environmental reasoning with the same $2 charge for paper bills.
Those who say, “switch to the competition if you don’t like Bell’s new policy,” might have noticed that it’s merely a matter of time before the actions of one telecommunications provider are adopted by the rest. This cannot be called price fixing, however, not without proof that the companies have conspired on these charges; but we can say that the proponents are not very imaginative milkers.
Outside telecom, other companies such as American Express and Ontario Hydro use e-billing. The companies differ, however, when it comes to method: whether forcing, or encouraging customers to adopt electronic billing; and whether internally providing the service, or using an external e-bill provider such as Canada Post, with its epost service.
Tooted as a low cost production and distribution service, electronic bill delivery and payment systems, which can integrate advertising and use links to increase a company’s website traffic, will likely continue unabated. However, the non-standard bill storage time periods (ranging from 12 months to 7 years) might have to be addressed. And of course proactive organizations can pre-empt any legal action required to prevent abuse or standardize policies in this area by listening to customers and upholding high professional standards.
Spinning green — marketing and public relations ingenuity
Tasked with selling the decision to reduce costs via electronic means, marketing and public relations teams can hold themselves to higher standards when claiming environmental good works, and avoid shining a disreputable light on client organizations.
Additional flexibility and ingenuity on the marketing and public relations end can add substance to the green rhetoric when, for example, the disparities in Internet usage between rich and poor is evident. That is the case in Canada, where those with incomes upwards of $87,000, are most likely to have home internet service — and 94 per cent of them do, according to Statistics Canada data from 2010 — compared to 54 per cent of those making $30,000 or less.
The statistics also showed that seniors represent half of the population who do not use the Internet.
Low income to afford the equipment and service, and lack of skill with computers and the associated technology, were some of the reasons for not using the Internet; However, some were simply uninterested; Call them luddites if you will, but they have that choice, although it is an increasing costly option.
For those customers who live in the city, public computers are available at the library, but public computers do not profess to be secure, so have these companies considered such challenges? Or is it not an organization’s concern, as part of the local community, where informed, flexible policies ensure benefits are spread more widely?
It might be time to consider whether with a move to virtual operations companies have a responsibility to accommodate subscribers who are computer illiterate, poor, and have no Internet access or reasonable means of getting online.
Going beyond greenwashing to show environmental commitment
If Bell is truly committed to the environment, it could prove that it seeks to protect the environment for the long-term, without resorting to additional charges.
Tree Canada, for example, could offset Bell Canada’s carbon-generating activities. Telus already established a relationship with Tree Canada when its e-billing adventures began.
Establishing such charitable relationships still demands transparency and fairness — consumers’ charitable contributions should benefit consumers. The telecom should make its own contributions, and/or make the consumer’s contribution optional, since some prefer contributing to self-selected charities. And if only a portion of the proceeds go to charity, the consumer should be advised.
Rather than greenwashing, companies can contribute to the environment by reshaping their organizational policies and processes to be green where possible, even if these changes are not visible to outsiders. For example, by allowing employees to shorten or eliminate their commute rather than building sprawling, remote campuses on formerly verdant fields, which increase automobile traffic and dampen work-life balance. Better yet, subsidize public transportation for your employees to encourage its use, and/or contribute to expediting transit-building initiatives in communities like Mississauga, where paralyzing traffic begs for improved transit.
How about being a voice in the industry supporting recycling electronic components, and using recycled components in communications equipment? Currently Bell’s advertising encourages consumers to upgrade before the end of life of their electronic communications device, which creates waste and gobbles up non-renewable resources.
What’s more, offering flexible, thoughtful customer service with quality products might produce the results sought by frequently pushing the latest product, which does not ensure long-term customer loyalty. Besides, truly green acts speak for themselves, and ring louder than the din of disapproval heard when greenwashing is discovered.