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TheStreet Open House

Paper or Electronic Bills? Believe It or Not, Consumers Now Demand Both

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The green movement wants financial consumers to get their bank, credit card and household bills and statements in a digital format.

The rational is simple and understandable: With less paper cluttering up residential and business mailboxes, the more trees you save.

But it turns out consumers want print and digital bills -- and they may penalize companies that don't offer both options by taking their business elsewhere.

So says a study of 2,000 U.S. adults by Two Sides, a Chicago nonprofit that promotes the "responsible use" of paper products.

The study shows that more than 60% of consumers say they "would not choose a provider that does not offer paper bills and statements" and that 88% want both paper-based and digital bills -- and to be able to "switch between" payment options.

That's an interesting development after years of consumers being told paperless bills were the wave of the future, and good for them as well as for the environment.

A 2010 study by the Electronic Payments Association cited a "direct correlation" between consumer satisfaction and paperless billing, with consumers who got paper bills being 10% "less satisfied with their financial institution."

But the Two Sides study contradicts the Electronic Payments Association, as financial consumers seem to be taking a stand against digital-only billing from their banks, credit card companies, utility companies and other service providers.

"While e-billing can be very convenient and Internet delivery is now commonplace, it's clear that U.S. consumers like paper bills and statements and don't want to be pushed into electronic-only communications," Two Sides President Phil Riebel says.

Some consumers believe they're being misled by paperless billing advocates.

"More than eight in 10 believe that cost savings are the driving force behind the 'go paperless' marketing hype, and many are suspicious of marketing claims that going paperless will 'save trees' or 'protect the environment," Riebel says. "In fact, 50% of those surveyed said they either did not believe such claims, felt misled by them or questioned their validity."

He says that about 33% of Americans wind up printing their digital bills anyway, muting some of the environmental benefits of paperless billing.

Both studies could be accused of bias, of course. Two Sides promotes the use of paper products and the Electronic Payments Association promotes the use of digital billing, so both organizations have a horse in the paper-versus-paperless billing race.

Two Sides addresses that.

"We fully understand the advantages of electronic billing," Riebel says."We just want companies to stop misleading consumers by using vague and unsubstantiated environmental claims and to continue offering no-cost paper options to people who say they want and need them."

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