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Save a Tree

This month, another utility company is urging me to “save a tree” and switch to “paperless billing.” That is, they want to email my monthly bill to me rather than mailing it. It’s a little step I can take to protect the environment, the company says. As an encouragement to take this environmentally friendly step, the utility company will charge me $2 more per month until I agree to make the switch.

It’s all nonsense.

I need paper receipts for my tax records, so I will end up printing out a copy of the emailed bill when it arrives. No trees will be saved.

What this is about is the utility company transferring the cost of printing the bill from the company to me. That is true whether I keep receiving paper bills (and paying $2 a month) or I start printing the digital bills myself. Otherwise, the utility company would offer to reduce my bill by $2 a month if I agree to switch to paperless bills. Essentially, they want me to start paying for a service they previously provided for free.

Nevertheless, since it will cost me less than $2 to print the bills, I agree to the change. It is then that I discover that the company does not actually email my bill. They email me a notice that the bill is available on the company’s website. I have to set up an account, log in, navigate through a number of screens, ignore a number of ads encouraging me to upgrade my service, and finally locate and print the bill. It is a lot more hassle than slitting open an envelope. Which convinces me even more that this change was not done for my benefit.

Being of a suspicious nature, I surmise that there is another aspect to this move to paperless billing. Most people don’t pay a lot of attention to paperless bills. They don’t scrutinize them the way they do paper bills. And they don’t keep them for future reference. They may look at them quickly (on the company’s website), pay them, and forget about them. They could save a digital copy of their paperless bills—but they don’t. And after a relatively short period of time, a year or 18 months, the bills are deleted from the company’s website, so the customer can’t go back and check.

Because I keep paper records, I was able to look back and realize that, in addition to the new $2 surcharge, my socially responsible utility company increased my regular bill by a significant amount last month, and also increased my bill by a similar amount a year ago. Together, these three increases add up to an increase of about 20 percent in a year—well beyond the rate of inflation.

The next step beyond paperless billing is the automatic payment option, an option I have so far resisted. Under this option, the customer agrees to have his monthly bill payments automatically withdrawn from his chequing account without his specific approval of each one. This will save the customer time and the stress of having to remember to pay his bills, the company says. (Remember that this is the same company that has made it more of a time-consuming hassle to go online and view the bills.) With automatic billing, the customer can still look at his monthly bill if he wants, but he doesn’t have to—and, in many cases, he won’t bother.

This wonderful system is the way of the future, the company says. It will save everybody a lot of bother. But what it amounts to is that the customer agrees to pay whatever the company charges with no questions asked. It is any company’s dream. And it has nothing to do with saving the environment.


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