How to cut back on your firm’s paper waste

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Sustainability | Jul 19, 2023

By Laura Fenton

It’s easy to be worried about the looming impact of climate change—but harder, often, to know what to do about it. In a new column, home design and sustainable living writer Laura Fenton taps industry experts for concrete ways to make your design business more sustainable, whether through product specifications or office workflow changes.

Among the pandemic’s silver linings for the design industry was a universal push forward with digital workflows. Yet even after three years of working at least partially remotely, interior design firms are still having trouble kicking the paper habit. Caleb Anderson, partner at the New York firm Drake/Anderson, says it’s worth the effort. “It doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Anderson. “Decide what’s realistic. Ask, ‘Can we cut it by 50 percent?’ That’s more realistic than saying, ‘We’re going completely paperless this year.’”

Cutting down on paper use might seem like small potatoes in the grand scope of the design industry’s waste issues, but this is one piece of the process that your firm can control completely, so it’s a great place to start. Plus, the pulp and paper industry is among the top five most energy-intensive industries globally, accounting for about 6 percent of global industrial energy use. And those trees that don’t get cut down to become paper? They are actively drawing down carbon.

To help your firm reduce paper waste, we talked to Anderson and other design pros about how they’ve cut back. Here’s what you need to know.

Start with a paper audit

In order to effectively reduce paper usage, you’ll first need to know how much you’re using. Start with a quick list of all the times during your process that your firm is creating paper assets, then assess how much volume that creates. Anderson used his firm’s printer as a guide, checking the log of printed pages for a calendar year and setting a goal to reduce that by half in a year’s time. If your printer doesn’t have an easily accessible log, you might go back and tally how many reams of paper you ordered in a given year instead.

Say no to unwanted junk mail

Pay a $4 fee to the Data & Marketing Association to stop most (but not all) promotional mail for a period of 10 years. A service provided through OptOutPrescreen allows you to refuse credit card and insurance offers that often plague individuals, but it won’t stop the offers for your business; for that, you can try reaching out to Experian’s small business division by email and provide your business name, address and a brief explanation of why you’re opting out of business marketing.

Politely decline paper materials—even from brands you adore

When brands come to your office, it’s OK to politely refuse any paper flyers, says Anderson, whose firm prefers to use digital catalogs and look books anyway because they simply don’t have space to store paper assets. Even better, let your rep know before they get to your office—with enough of those requests, brands may eventually decide to limit their print runs, saving paper everywhere.

Move to digital mood boards

Despite turning down marketing materials, Anderson admits that his firm’s biggest paper use was in the team’s design process. “We printed tear sheets for everything,” he says. Sound familiar? If printing every item under consideration is still part of your process, too, begin to store your options as digital files instead. “It’s really an exercise in mindfulness,” says Anderson. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to print this?’ When we get so busy, it’s hard to break that habit or routine, but it can be done.” Many designers say that while there’s still no perfect mood board software, they have turned to Google Slides or PowerPoint as an alternative for now.

Adjust your printer settings

Set your printer’s default setting to two-sided printing to halve your page count. Some printers even have a setting that adds the document to a printer queue but holds off actually printing until you enter a pin code into the machine. Train yourself (and your staff) to preview before you click “print,” checking which pages you really need and then selecting only those to print. And try to get in the habit of saving any paper printed on just one side. You can either feed it through the machine again or use the backs of those pages for hand-written notes.

Opt for eco-friendlier paper

Unless you are printing something for a client presentation (we’ll get to that in a moment), use recycled paper instead of premium virgin-pulp paper. Recycling uses less energy and emits lower greenhouse gas emissions than creating virgin paper, and it saves forests. If you can find anything made from postconsumer recycled material, which means it’s sourced from office or curbside recycling programs (not the factory’s own castoffs), that’s even better.

Present digitally

Most designers told us that their clients are generally comfortable receiving proposals and presentations digitally. Anderson’s team presents on a screen in the firm’s conference room, and they are designing their new offices to make this even easier. Kate Smith, founder of K. Smith X, a construction management and design firm in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, shares her designs directly on a laptop screen or via a link for remote clients. Whether you’re using Dropbox, Google Drive or another service, clear and consistent file naming and organization is key.

Send contracts online

You’ve probably already moved to digital contracts, but if you haven’t, consider signing up for DocuSign, which makes it easy to send, sign and countersign your agreements. Smith says it’s well-worth the $300 a year because it also keeps everything streamlined in one central place.

Find a digitally savvy GC

Multiply your impact by challenging the pros around you to take a similarly mindful approach to paper use. “When you start to work with a GC, find out where they stand with paper,” says Cassandra Cymbal, founder and principal designer at Bless This Place, a design firm in Southern California. You may be surprised at their willingness to move away from the status quo. “Ask what [documentation] they expect on-site, and work together with them to reduce paper waste.”

Chip away at job-site papers

The final phase of interior design is the peskiest one to rid of paper waste. Spec books can run hundreds of pages and tradespeople are often not ready to go fully digital. Smith’s solution is to offer two versions of her spec book: One with all the info, and a second snapshot spec packet with only the most pertinent pages. “It’s up to them on how they want to manage it, but we encourage them only to print the snapshot,” says Smith.

Get Wi-Fi on-site

Both Smith and Cymbal have seen other firms using QR codes to access the spec book on the job site, but as Smith points out, “The guys I work with laughed at that idea. A lot of the places [we work in] are remote, so cell service is dodgy.” However, if you do want to go paperless and try to institute QR codes on-site, you’re going to need Wi-Fi there during the construction phase. If you’ve got cell service at a job site, but your crew is burning through data, consider a dedicated Wi-Fi hot spot; most models can connect five devices at once.

Reuse the spec book

Cymbal notes that you don’t need to create a whole new binder for the homeowner upon project completion: Just reuse the spec book as the clients’ care, maintenance and warranty package. Her firm also provides clients with a USB drive containing the digital files.

Donate your design materials

The catalogs and old design magazines headed for the recycling bin might be able to have one more life before they go. “I save anything that could be good for decoupage and send an email to the local art school when I have a stack,” says Smith. (She’s onto something: This writer’s son’s preschool teacher was elated to receive a box of interior design magazines for class projects.)


Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.

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