Is greener paper possible?

Is greener paper possible?

The terms paper and sustainability seem like an inherent contradiction.

Given that the pulp and paper industry is the third largest consumer of energy in U.S. manufacturing — and that deforestation is a leading cause of climate change, on paper — it might be hard to fathom that the industry has integrated sustainability into any part of its business model.  

Yet several of the largest companies in the field, such as Georgia-Pacific, International Paper and Domtar Paper Company, have been embracing new sustainability initiatives. Some of these efforts include endangered forest protection, the use of Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper and better logging practices.

Last week, the Dogwood Alliance, an NGO based in Asheville, N.C., that works with companies to help protect and conserve Southern forests, released a progress report on the paper industry’s conservation efforts in southern forests. The upshot: ultimately market demand from major customers such as Staples and Walmart is pushing the envelope on paper supply chain improvements.

And although deforestation concerns abound in developing markets around the world, the Dogwood Alliance focused on forests in the U.S. south because they produce more pulp and paper than anywhere else in the world. These forests cover over 214 million acres and make up 29 percent of the entire forestland of the U.S., ranging from Florida to Northern Virginia to Texas.

Making progress  

The new Dogwood Alliance report, "Green Grades," focuses on five of the biggest pulp and paper companies, including Georgia-Pacific, International Paper, MeadWestvaco and the Packaging Corporation of America/Boise.

As a whole, these companies account for over 50 percent of the forest products industry in the south and more than 30 percent of total domestic production.

The Dogwood Alliance documented the progress of these companies based on five metrics: endangered forest protection; forest management certification; conversion/maintenance of natural forests; forest stewardship and conservation initiatives; and forest carbon management.

Andrew Goldberg, director of corporate engagement Dogwood Alliance, said that the paper industry’s shift toward conservation and sustainability actually began with pressure coming externally from large customers.

“The market demand has mostly been not within the industry, but outside of it — from Disney, Staples, Glaxo and Walmart,” Goldberg told GreenBiz. “When those consumer facing brands start saying, 'We need a supplier partner to meet our sustainability goals,' that’s when you get a strong market signal."

Getting certified

When it comes down to how sustainability is applied to forests, one increasingly by procuring wood that has received the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) forest management certification.

As is the case in other industries where sustainability is increasingly en vogue with suppliers, companies dealing in forest products have several certification options to choose from, such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's various offerings. The Dogwood Alliance stresses the outside auditing included in FSC certifications, which acts as a verification for consumers that the paper they are buying was extracted responsibly based on a strict set of guidelines.

Some of these guidelines entail limiting the size of clear cuts, protecting biodiversity on forests and prohibitions on converting forests to plantations.    

“The idea is, 'Don’t take my word for it,'" Goldberg said. "Make it a third party system that is audited, so that you get visibility and transparency of how things are managed in the woods."

Sophie Beckham, global forest stewardship and sustainability manager at International Paper, the largest pulp and paper company in the world, said that certification is an important step in responding to customer demand. International customers, as well as domestic or multinational companies that are producing in the U.S., often like to see certification labels on the products that they buy from suppliers.

“Those labels for them are really sort of the first test that a third party has put their seal of approval — that the forest resources are being managed responsibly and that there is a clear chain of custody,” Beckham said.

The report noted the FSC accomplishments of Georgia-Pacific and International Paper; however, the Dogwood Alliance ranked Domtar Paper Company as the leader in the group.

Domtar, headquartered in Montreal and the largest integrated manufacturer of uncoated freesheet office paper in North America, has made a goal of having 100 percent FSC-certified products.

Minimizing the carbon footprint

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, deforestation and forest degradation account for 17.4 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions (PDF). The link between deforestation and climate change is pretty apparent, as trees convert carbon to oxygen through photosynthesis, acting as carbon traps with emissions.

“The world is recognizing the importance of forest carbon. … Clearly, we need to do a better job of managing forest carbon to the U.S. south all the way to equatorial Africa,” said Goldberg. “It’s an aspirational goal in our report because we know for sure that it’s going to be more important."

In the report, the Dogwood Alliance highlighted some ways in which companies can lessen their impact, one of which is by enhancing carbon sequestration in managed forests.

Out of the five companies surveyed in the report, the Dogwood Alliance mentioned that only Domtar has made serious steps in making carbon management a part of its sustainability initiatives.

One of Domtar’s initiatives is its Carbon Canopy Project, partnering with the Dogwood Alliance. The project works on trying to find a carbon market for the southern forests, and has done so in part by compensating private forest landowners who help reduce carbon emissions.  

 “What we’re hoping to see is by some companies stepping out there as leaders — and by the international climate movement starting to address these issues — is A, that customers start to demand it, and B, that we see more leadership level work around lessening the impact,” said Dogwood Alliance Communications Director Scot Quaranda.