How Sprint pushes the envelope on paper waste

Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S), like many large companies, has struggled to convince its customers of the merits of paperless billing, but it found it's an uphill battle: Only 30 percent opt for digital bills. Rather than try new ways to push the same solution, the telecommunications giant is finding creative ways to achieve its sustainability goals and continue improving its bottom line.

The company is pushing the envelope in eco-friendly design -- literally. Sprint recently launched a new two-in-one reusable envelope to invoice its customers that could save the company nearly half a million dollars a year.

The envelope redesign -- conceived and launched in nine months, a speed that company reps call record time -- is part of Sprint's paper reduction strategy, which aims to cut down the company's paper purchase and usage.

Keanon Swan, manager of vendor management and postal strategy at Sprint, said the company decided to come up with a more environmentally sustainable alternative to the traditional two-envelope system.

"We thought the e-bill would ramp up to 100 percent [of customers], but that's just not the case," Swan said. "Doing nothing was not an option."

A two-in-one envelope is hardly a new concept -- many companies in the United States make use of this format. Sprint, however, is the first U.S. company to use the new patent-pending ecoEnvelope. The envelope, pictured above and slightly larger below, converts from a 6 x 9-inch envelope to the standard No. 10, so customers can use the same envelope to send their payment to Sprint.

The company chose this particular design for its simplicity and its easy-to-use format.

"We did look at other products but they were not as intuitive," Swan said.

In 2010, Sprint reduced the physical weight of its paper sheets and the envelope itself, before turning its attention to the reusable envelope.

The new envelope took nine months to develop and launch. The design had to be approved by a number of different channels to meet certain standards, like adhering to postal regulations. Manufacturing was also a key concern -- the company had to figure out a way to produce the envelope at the same speed as conventional envelopes.

"We wanted to design something that didn't create a cost barrier to entry," Swan said.

The text on the envelope also drew out the process. The customer's address used to be printed on the envelope, but now it appears in a window. Where to put instructions for the customer on how to use the new envelope also took consideration. All of these seemingly minor changes had to go through a review and approval process within the company.

Sprint also ran a 90-day trial with a focus group to test the product on consumers. The company used the feedback to tweak and improve the envelope further. For example, some focus group customers wanted illustrations in the instructions, while others wanted only text. The company compromised and decided to include both.

"There were a lot of firsts that took a little more time to get approved," Swan said.

Another hurdle included coming up with an opening mechanism on the envelope that would survive the mailing cycle from manufacture to paper insertion to the postal process to delivery, then from the customer back to the company.

"This little piece of paper has to withstand quite a journey," Swan said.

The new envelope format will save more than 400 tons of paper, nearly 10 million gallons of water and more than 1,500 tons of wood a year, according to the company's press release.

Keanon said Sprint hopes to set an example with its new product and inspire other companies to follow suit.

"It's more than just a physical envelope," he said. "It represents a paradigm shift that all things can be viewed through a sustainable lens."