Skip to main content

Radical Transparency Amid Office Depot's Paper Supplies

<p>A free, open-source and volunteer-driven platform is behind a partnership between Office Depot and New Leaf Paper to let shoppers know exactly where their paper comes from.</p>

Here's a simple but powerful idea:

People have the right to know where things come from and what they are made of.

That's the idea behind a free open-source, volunteer-driven platform called Sourcemap. Sourcemap will soon make its mass market debut, thanks to a partnership between Office Depot and New Leaf Paper.

The goal of the partnership is, not surprisingly, to sell more recycled paper. While you'll get some argument about this, experts say that recycled paper saves trees, energy and water, produces less pollution, uses more benign chemicals, and requires less bleaching than virgin paper production.

State of Green Business

The trouble is, recycled paper -- for now -- costs more. That's largely a problem of scale. If there were more demand for recycled paper, there would be more incentive to collect used paper, more infrastructure devoted to recycling and costs would come down.

So, to drive up sales and eventually drive down costs, Office Depot and New Leaf want to show customers -- institutions, small companies and individuals -- the environmental benefits of recycled paper, in part by telling them exactly where their paper come from.

"We're trying to make environmental paper mainstream," says Jeff Mendelsohn, the president and co-founder of New Leaf, which develops, markets and distributes environmentally-preferable paper.

Beginning later this year, shoppers who buy Office Depot's 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council-certified recycled paper will be able to use their mobile phones to read a QR code (a kind of barcode) on the package. They'll then see a movie, like this one, that traces their paper back to its source. This paper was tracked from the GreenBiz's State of Green Business Forum 2011 in Washington, D.C., back to the streets of Milwaukee. Please take a look:

I spoke with New Leaf's Jeff Mendelsohn and Yalmaz Siddiqui, director of environmental strategy at Office Depot, last week in Washington, where they gave a lively talk on their project.

"We are two green businessmen, and we both love paper," said Yalmaz. "But," he continued, "We also like trees."

It took a village to get this project going -- not just Office Depot, New Leaf and Sourcemap, but MIT's Materials Systems Laboratories, UK-based Carbon Trust and the Wisconsin pulp mill where the paper is made. Corporate sustainability is, inevitably, a team sport.

Interestingly, the project began with a request from a customer, in this case Boston University. "Almost every environmental program we've implemented at Office Depot, I can trace back to a conversation with a large institutional customer," Yalmaz told me. BU wanted to know about the carbon footprint of office paper. Other big buyers will surely follow. "The largest customer in the world, the U.S. government and the GSA, are looking at how do we address supply chain carbon," he said. (See Greening the world's biggest supply chain.)

Office Depot has been selling 100 percent recycled paper since 2003. It just hasn't been selling much of it.

"It sat on the shelf, partly because of the price, partly because of the quality," Yalmaz said. A case of regular copy paper sells for about $38 to $47, while the 100 percent recycled retails for about $55.

Quality has improved since then, and a number of institutional buyers now select the 100 percent recycled paper; among them are Google and Facebook. More than 80 percent of the sales of 30 percent recycled copy paper also go to green-minded institutional buyers.

Alas, at Office Depot stores, most people still opt for the cheaper stuff.


If this project makes recycled paper come off as cutting-edge, it could help remedy that. Office Depot worked on it for nearly a year with New Leaf, which specializes in sourcing environmentally-friendly paper. They supplied the recycled paper for the Harry Potter books in Canada, and whose customers include the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club, as well as Old Navy and Bank of America.

Jeff MendelsohnAs they dug into their supply chain, and teased out the carbon footprint of each step in the process, the companies learned where their "hot spots" are located. The biggest -- 41 percent of the carbon footprint -- came from the pulp mill, where recycled stock is turned into pulp. That wasn't a surprise; the paper and pulp industry is known as energy intensive. Another 16 percent comes from the paper mill. But as much as 20 percent of the footprint can come from consumer usage, depending on whether customers print on one or both sides of the sheet, whether their printers shut off automatically when they are not in use and whether the paper is ultimately recycled or trucked to a landfill.

"Paper choices don't end with the purchase," Yalmaz says. "It really matters how you use and dispose of your paper."

That raises an interesting point. Many consumers who balk at paying 20 percent more for recycled paper are, as it happens, already paying twice as much as they need to for paper -- if, that is, they don't print on both sides. (I'm paying high prices twice -- once because I buy the recycled stuff, a second time because I print on only one side. Time to shop for a new printer, I guess.)

Making the information publicly available, in an accessible way, is the work of Sourcemap, which Leo Bonanni, an MIT post-doc working in the university's media lab, began as a student project back in 2007. "It started out as an academic calculator," he told me. Now, he says, "it creates a kind of transparent dialog between the producer and the consumer."

This carbon footprint exercise may come across to some as a gimmick and, to a degree, it is. But things change quickly. Many supermarkets now routinely tell you where their fruits or vegetables were grown. As more companies embrace traceability -- pioneers like Patagonia and Icebreaker have already doing so -- consumer expectations will grow. (See Why Traceability Matters.) If even a small percentage of consumers shop more consciously, companies will respond. What's not to like about that?

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi,

More on this topic