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How sustainable fiber procurement will affect future forests

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WestRock procures fiber from sustainably managed forests

WestRock

"There’s no day that’s any better, in my opinion, than a day spent in nature," Roger Lynch, fiber supply manager at WestRock, reminisced.

That’s just what Lynch’s job calls for — days spent deep in nature, walking through the woodlands from which WestRock procures its fiber and strategizing with family forest landowners on how to maximize the sustainability of their forests. It’s a love that was nurtured in him by his father, who worked in forestry for about three decades. Today, what he learns on those days spent in nature inform how these lands are managed so that generations after him can enjoy them too.

"When people think about forests, they think about trees," explained Chris Erwin, director of biodiversity and southern conservation at the American Forest Foundation. "Forests are so much more than trees. It’s the abundant wildlife, the productive soils, the clean air that you breathe in when you walk through the forest. Maintaining that ecosystem requires management."

But what does it mean to manage a forest, and why is it so important?

The necessity of virgin fiber

Fiber-based materials are one of the most sustainable options for packaging and products. But in order to be truly sustainable, we must consider the lifecycle length and durability of our products.

There is a common misconception that 100 percent recycled content products are more sustainable than products made some percentage of responsibly sourced virgin, or new, fiber. But in reality, paper fibers can only be recycled five to seven times to make new paper products. Without the infusion of virgin fiber into the paper manufacturing process, research has shown that the paper cycle would end in fewer than 14 months.

"There has to be a healthy balance of the recycled fibers married with the virgin fibers to strengthen the characteristics," Lynch said. "We want to ensure that the takeout container that you’re using to carry your food home has the right fiber qualities so that there’s no failure."

As more companies across industries adopt fiber into their products and packaging, forests will become a central part of many supply chains. Likewise, strong forest management practices will be essential for those who prioritize investing in the sustainability of their operations.

Managing forests sustainably

In short, forest sustainability is key to the future of our planet. Research has found that forest restoration is "overwhelmingly" the primary solution to climate change. This means that forests which are procurement pipelines for virgin fiber must be managed sustainably.

Forest management specialists such as Lynch work directly with landowners to best understand their land management objectives and develop plans to both harvest fiber sustainably and encourage reforestation. This can include planting, weed control and tree thinning to reduce overcrowding.

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"From the time the seedling is planted in the ground to the time it’s harvested, you want to ensure that everything done in that entire cycle is done in a responsible manner," Lynch said. "If it is, then you check all the other boxes: clean air; clean water; wildlife habitat; aesthetic values; and recreation."

Crucial to forest sustainability are land management plans designed to ensure forest landscapes remain forest positive, meaning that more trees are planted then harvested in a procurement basin. Steps should be taken so working forests are maintained and managed ensuring healthy forests stay as forest for future generations.

The importance of certifications

To organizations that grapple with fiber procurement but haven’t yet invested in this area, this may sound like a daunting undertaking. Thankfully, certification guidelines and standards are in place to assist you on your journey when it comes to sourcing materials. Certifications can help you and your customers ensure that the materials you source are harvested and managed in a sustainable way that meets the expectations of NGOs, customers and consumers.

For example, WestRock’s forestland in Brazil is certified to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and CERFLOR forest management standards. We also maintain two Independently Managed Group (IMG) certificates through the American Tree Farm System, which represents more than 340 landowners and 380,000 acres.

We follow a well-defined environmental and virgin fiber procurement program and maintain a strong commitment to sustainable forestry through our direct contact with the landowners we partner with. We hold ourselves and our procurement organization to the high standard of fiber sourcing certification. All 13 of our United States fiber procurement regions and our Canadian operations are certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative 2015-2019 Fiber Sourcing standard.

Securing these certifications can help companies that are engaged in the harvesting of virgin fiber to reassure their stakeholders that they are doing so in a sustainable, industry-standard way.

Partnering for maximum impact

It’s important that sustainable forestry is a holistic, integrated process, both when it comes to ecosystem development and management. This is most easily and effectively achieved when you have partnership and alignment across landowners, supply managers and suppliers.

At WestRock, we work closely with landowners throughout this process to understand their objectives for the long term and the legacy they have with their land, and then provide them with guidance that helps them meet their objectives in a sustainable manner for the long term. When we buy from wood suppliers, we require them to meet our environmental, social and legal standards to ensure that the fiber we use is responsibly sourced.

So, what does this actually look like in practice?

Building resilience and strengthening biodiversity

To keep the ecosystems within forests healthy, land managers commonly employ a tactic known as strategic thinning. This is essentially selectively removing underdeveloped trees in areas allowing healthier trees to flourish and thrive. Forest management practices such as thinning have multiple benefits.

First, it allows biodiversity to better flourish along the forest bed. When too many tall trees begin to crowd out the sunlight, it can damage the greenery that clusters closer to the ground.

"Picture the forest like a garden," said Heather Slayton, assistant state forester for Tennessee. "You plant your vegetables, but soon you’re starting to see that some are not growing as well as others. So, you remove those to give the resources to the strong performers. And that’s what we do in forestry. If you remove those trees, you’re making the forest healthier."

Overcrowded forests are also more likely to become fire hazards. And when trees aren’t given enough space to grow, they can become stressed, making them good targets for disease.

Erwin explained, "Without these managing practices, there’s no thinning, there’s no harvesting going on. Forests grow, they get overcrowded and then they get wiped out, whether it’s by wildfire or disease."

Forest product companies have a responsibility to help counteract this.

Forests for the future

As he walks the forests, Lynch is thinking about the long-term. When he develops management plans, he is always considering the longevity of each forest, harvesting and cultivating in a holistic manner that takes a longer timeline into account.

Some of Lynch’s favorite memories are of the first harvest operation he ever saw. He saw how the trees were replanted and the forest management that went along with that process. Now, at WestRock, he’s able to help drive the initiatives that bring these practices to life.

"We’ve built a community that’s focused on sustainability," he said. "I’m really passionate about encouraging my kids, the kids in schools now and the generational landowners: Leave what you have been entrusted with better than when it was left with you."

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