Skip to main content

Fiber testing reveals dirty secrets of office paper

<p>Want to know if your office supplies are really sustainable? Put them under the microscope.</p>

At WRI, we are working to understand and minimize our environmental impacts. Using research and expertise from around the Institute to guide us, WRI is committed to limiting the resources we use and purchasing products that reflect our environmental and social mission.

Our guidelines at our Washington, D.C. office require paper products to be certified and have high recycled fiber content. However, we had not identified other requirements beyond product certification, nor had we effectively communicated these guidelines or any paper purchasing standards with our non-D.C. offices. We also found that we were not maintaining records on all our offices’ paper purchases.

Considering our ongoing work to help companies comply with U.S. Lacey Act requirements, we decided it was time to examine the paper products in our own offices. We wanted to better understand our supply chains and use fiber analysis to test the paper content.

The results showed that:

  • Some products in our offices are not certified;
  • We actually know little about the origin and the supply chains of some of these products; and
  • In one instance, we inadvertently had purchased a potentially controversial product.

This realization underscores how important it is for organizations to take a closer look at their purchasing decisions. Even with the best intentions, it is easy to lose track of where paper comes from.

Testing our paper supply chains

The first step was to identify what paper products we use. Our offices in Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Mumbai developed a spreadsheet that listed the brand, manufacturer, distributor and/or retailer and the country of origin for each paper product in the office. We compiled this information from the labels and, in some cases, by directly asking our suppliers. The lists included office paper (envelopes, notebooks, printing paper), personal hygiene products (facial tissues, paper towels), and other odds and ends (paper plates and cups, promotional goods).

Together, the three offices identified 64 products from more than 10 manufacturers all over the world. For some products, we found little information about their origin, particularly those purchased by our India and China offices.

Photo of paper assortment provided by HomeStudio/Shutterstock

Next, we prioritized paper samples for fiber testing based on supply chain information, company and country of origin. Because of limited funds to cover fiber analysis, we focused on products that had few details about their supply chains, those from companies with controversial reputations and those from countries with significant illegal logging claims. Choosing samples involved judgment calls, and we based our decisions on publicly available information and our staff’s expertise.

Of the 64 products, we chose seven high-priority samples: two products from our D.C. office; one product from our Mumbai office; and four products from our Beijing office. Fiber analysis can cost between $100 and $200 per sample, so it was important to choose wisely.

Finally, we shipped the samples to Integrated Paper Services, Inc. for fiber analysis. The actual process had a quick turnaround. Only a couple weeks after we mailed in our samples, we had our results.

Of the seven samples, one contained traces of mixed tropical hardwoods (MTH) – a calendar purchased in our China office. This was significant because the presence of MTH in paper products has been associated with tropical natural forest clearance, controversial logging practices and possibly illegal logging.

While all but one paper sample came back free of MTH, it is disquieting to realize that we inadvertently have purchased potentially controversial paper products. Like any organization, we have a responsibility to use reputable suppliers and to purchase goods that meet defined expectations.

We are now developing individualized paper purchasing guidelines for each of our offices. We will design these guidelines to:

  • Outline our expectations for environmentally sound products of legal origin, defining what we consider acceptable and what is not;

  • Account for the types of products available regionally and the varying purchasing practices of our different offices;

  • Give preference to third-party verified/certified products and products with high-recycled content, as well as provide for acceptable alternatives for when such products are unavailable;

  • Train our staff to (a) ask for and seek more detailed information about the supply chains of the paper products we use; and (b) assess the potential risk of sourcing unwanted fibers; and

  • Discontinue the purchase of products that might contain unwanted materials until better information about their supply chain becomes available.

Designing the guidelines is only the beginning. As we implement them, we plan to continue monitoring for known risks and testing paper samples periodically. We will adjust our purchasing guidelines as necessary. Our experience evaluating our paper supply chains has helped us understand the importance of “walking the talk” and paying close attention to our purchasing decisions. We now have a better understanding of our paper products’ supply chains, and we are in a better position to develop an achievable and sustainable purchasing policy.

This article originally appeared at World Resources Institute (or WRI Insight) and is reprinted with permission.

More on this topic