Sustainability — Paper Options Not Clear Cut
Lingerie clad women carrying chain saws sounds like a scene out of a B-movie horror flick, not a topic for a story on trends in paper usage. Which is the point, in a sense.
In late 2005, environmental activists were able to grab headlines by dressing in lingerie for a series of protests outside Victoria’s Secret stores. The organizers sought to call attention to what they considered irresponsible and wasteful use of paper by the company in its catalog marketing program. They challenged the clothier to stop using paper that tracked back to trees from the Great Boreal Forest in Canada, to buy more recycled tonnage and to cut its overall paper usage.
ForestEthics, one of the environmental advocacy groups behind this and other actions, has received some praise for its willingness to engage corporations in a constructive way. Yet, commitment to recycling and use of recycled paper still seems more in the vain of a cause driven by activists. Stunts such as the Victoria’s Secret protest can work against having the message taken seriously by mainstream consumers and businesses.
The “sustainability” movement, by comparison, is more Main and Wall Street. It is being embraced by Corporate America partly for image building (or repair), but also because competing in a global marketplace means satisfying the more stringent environmental regulations of other countries.
The concept of managing resources and carrying out processes in a sustainable fashion to ensure their environmental and economic viability over the long term has broad applicability. So far, paper sourcing has been the main focus in the printing sector.
Sustainable forestry is distinct from recycling but, in the big picture, there is overlap in the goals of the two movements. In terms of paper usage, this includes halting the practice of clear-cutting forests and, depending on the group, preserving old growth forests. Recycling does have the added benefit of reducing the amount of paper that ends up in the waste stream.
Sustainability has some earmarks of a fad or buzzword that only gets paid lip service or quickly falls victim to budgetary constraints. One cause for skepticism on the part of printers may be a sense of déjà vu brought on by past experiences with the push for recycling and use of recycled papers. The initial high level of enthusiasm quickly settled into a core group of print customers with a strong environmental commitment.
Few manufacturing processes are as directly customer driven as printing, with the buyer providing some process inputs and having final say over others. Then there are the competitive pressures of today’s business environment. Lack of pricing power and thin margins keep printers focused on building efficiency and limit the latitude for business missteps.
Given these dynamics, taking a wait-and-see approach to industry trends can be the prudent course of action. Printers want to see significant and consistent customer demand before investing time and/or money in a new service or technology.
Despite the advances that have been made, recycled grades (particularly those with post-consumer waste fiber) still suffer from the perception that they are more expensive, don’t offer the same appearance as virgin grades and can be more problematic to run on-press. Whether that is a fair assessment or not is open to debate.
Recycling programs are also being challenged by municipal budgets and reports of recyclables simply ending up back in the waste stream/landfills. Single-stream collection systems are now being promoted as a more cost-effective option, but concerns are being raised about possible degradation of recovered fiber due to contamination and other damage.
Using paper sourced from sustainably managed forests provides much of the same green factor as recycled grades, while taking any questions about appearance and performance out of the equation. Continuing growth in the number of grades with chain-of-custody certification works against suppliers charging a premium for such stocks.
The challenge here is understanding the somewhat competing efforts to implement and promote standards for sustainable forest management. For printers in the United States, the key players are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) now under the direction of the Sustainable Forestry Board (SFB). Broadening the focus to North America would bring the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) into play.
All of the programs are similar at the forest level, as attested to by the PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes) council. This global umbrella organization provides a framework for the development and mutual recognition of national forest certification schemes based on a set of minimum requirements.
One point of difference is the acreage of forest certified by each group as managed in a responsible and sustainable manner, with SFI claiming the lead. Depending on one’s perspective, the critical difference may be the makeup of the stakeholders driving each program. The American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) took the lead in the SFI and has made participation a requirement of membership in the association. Environmental stakeholders have had a prominent role in the SFC.
Under each program, chain-of-custody certification is the mechanism by which sellers and users of materials derived from sustainably managed forests can verify they have the ability to track their supplies back to certified sources. The process includes passing an independent audit of an applicant’s inventory management and tracking systems.
FSC (www.fscus.org) was covered at length in the May 2005 edition of Printing Impressions—”Here Today, Here Tomorrow,” on page 60. The organization, which is based in Washington, DC, works through independent certification agencies that it accredits. Smartwood, the FSC accredited program of the Rainforce Alliance, counts more than 25 printers in North America among the companies it has judged to merit chain-of-custody certification.
William Banzhaf, president of the SFB in Arlington, VA, sees SFI as being very compatible, but also competitive, with SFC. While the program may have a lead in forest certification, it hadn’t put as much effort into its chain-of-custody certification program, he admits.
“We have a very strong communications link with owners of the forest, but we as a board haven’t made a big effort to reach out to their end customers,” Banzhaf says. One reason is that SFI’s chain-of-custody certification labeling program wasn’t fully released until last year. The SFB is now moving to widen the focus of its efforts, adds the board president.
If the printer is the end customer, then it would look for paper suppliers to assume responsibility for certification, Banzhaf says. If the printer is acting as the middleman and selling materials to another organization that required certification, then the shop could contact the auditing firm that its paper supplier worked with to see about extending the chain of custody, he notes.
For now, AF&PA is still handling the nuts and bolts of that label program, except for the actual auditing behind it, according to Banzhaf. A list of SFI accredited certifiers is available on SFB’s Website (www.aboutsfb.org).
Despite the attention it has been getting, sustainability should not be seen as supplanting recycling. In fact, the latter has been getting a renewed push on several fronts in the last year or so.
Both the Magazine Publishers of America and The Direct Marketing Association, for example, have been promoting national programs in their respective industry sectors. Also, in late 2005, Abitibi-Consolidated announced an expansion of its Paper Retriever newspaper and magazine recycling program, extending its coverage to seven more U.S. markets for a total of 23 metropolitan areas.
More importantly, a recent study found that consumers are willing to support the cause with their dollars. Roughly 80 percent of the book and magazine consumers sampled (restricted to people who had purchased a book or magazine in the past six months or who currently have a magazine subscription) said they would be willing to pay more for a copy printed on recycled paper. At the top end, 42 percent of the book buyers in the sample said they’d be willing to pay up to $1 more per book and 47 percent of the magazine buyers reported they’d pony up between 50 cents and 75 cents extra.
Only 14 percent of the book buyers and 16 percent of the magazine buyers sampled said they wouldn’t be willing to pay any additional amount.
According to the survey findings, factors such as sex, geographic region, education level and income didn’t significantly impact respondents’ willingness to spend more for publications printed on recycled paper. There was a much bigger differential when responses were broken down into age brackets, with the 65+ age group lagging the younger consumer brackets by 10 to 20 percentage points.
The telephone survey was conducted by an independent research firm, Opinion Research Corp., under the sponsorship of Book Business magazine, Green Press Initiative (GPI) and Co-Op America. While the survey question only asked about recycled paper, “it is assumed that the results would also be true for paper that incorporates FSC fiber,” concludes Tyson Miller, GPI’s executive director.