10 things I learned in my first 100 days

After four years as VP and general manager of U.S. commercial printing paper business, in 2012 Teri Shanahan was appointed VP Sustainability at International Paper (IP), the world’s biggest paper and packaging company. Here are 10 things she learned in her first 100 days.

1. Deforestation is a serious, global problem. We buy most of our wood from tree farmers who maintain high standards and continuously replant to sustain their business. That’s the happy side of the picture. But globally, forests are shrinking and we need to act.

2. Pulp and paper making is not the prime cause of deforestation. Okay, I would say that – but it’s true. The main cause is the need to feed 7 billion humans! Clearing forests for agriculture is primarily responsible for the annual loss of about 13 million hectares of forest, according to the United Nations. And with 2 billion more people expected by 2050, forests will come under even more pressure.

3. The paper and packaging industry uses about 11 percent of all wood consumed, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization,  a relatively small but significant piece of the total forestry pie. Our industry is generally perceived to be influential in the way forests are managed. At IP, we feel deeply tied to forests and we want to be part of the solution for protecting them.

4. Sustainability means different things to different people, but the business case is clear: Our operations are totally dependent on preserving the forest’s natural, renewable and recyclable materials. Markets want to see proof that we “get” this and are good stewards of these precious resources.

5. Environmental campaign groups (or NGOs) are not all crazy! I was worried about dealing with NGOs at first because what I had registered in the past were mainly their publicity stunts, and what I saw as the relentless persecution of the paper and packaging industry.

6. NGOs are not our enemies. Most groups are reasonable, made up of educated people who really want to help the planet. When we sit down and talk to one another, we find we have a shared desire to take special care of the environment.

7. We were wrong to assume that the world would “get” our story, and understand that sustainable forestry and wood products contribute to a sustainable world. Many people imagine that our products are made from gigantic redwoods or rainforests. Wrong. And that using computers is always better for the environment than printing. Wrong again. We have so much to do to counteract the misinformation and prejudice about environmental issues in general and paper in particular.

8. Independent certification of fiber for forest products is an excellent way to verify good stewardship of forests. The NGOs that backed the system over two decades ago had good foresight, as these systems are more and more widely used and accepted.

9. Some people think we are only about the money. Yes, it matters because profits keep us in business, which provides the jobs that are so desperately needed, especially in rural areas. But doing the right thing matters, too. We invest money every day to keep our employees safe and protect the environment.

10. It’s also about values and how we can contribute to human development. On a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil, I visited our Fumare School where IP employees provide education for a year to a group of 17 year-olds from deprived families. The hope and gratitude was palpable on their faces. It made me proud to be part of a corporation that is determined to contribute to a better world.