Where's the Valentine's Day love for sustainability?

Broken heart leaf
When it comes to gifts for sweethearts, the market is rife with products whose sources don't look so green from the sustainability perspective.

All lovers know there is a lot to remember in the run-up to Valentine's Day. Have you got a card? Have you got a gift? Have you booked a suitably overpriced restaurant? Now another crucial question must be added to the Valentine's checklist for the lovestruck and their retailers alike — have you ensured the supply chain for your gift is environmentally sustainable?

WWF this week has stepped up pressure on card retailers to ensure Valentine's cards are made from sustainable materials, after an investigation fueled fears some high street names are selling products containing mixed tropical hardwood (MTH).

The campaign group purchased 20 cards and envelopes from three retail outlets and found that three products, bought from Paperchase, the Card Factory and Clinton's, contained varying amounts of MTH, suggesting the fibers "most likely" had come from natural growth tropical forests. When challenged by the NGO, only Paperchase provided evidence its product had been sourced from sustainable forests.

The 20 cards and envelopes were tested by the Institution for Paper Science and Technology in Darmstadt, Germany, which concluded that a Card Factory card contained 10 percent MTH, a paper component on a Clinton Card contained 8 percent MTH and a Paperchase card featured 5 percent MTH in the envelope.

"The results shown are [for] products on the market in the U.K. that contain pulp from natural growth tropical forests — in this case, probably Southeast Asia," WWF said. "In addition, all of the products contained acacia, which carries a risk of being grown in plantations that have been created on recently cleared tropical forest."

Speaking to BusinessGreen, WWF's Julia Young said there was evidence Paperchase could demonstrate it had sourced the material from a sustainably verified source. But she argued Clinton's and Card Factory did not have adequate supply chain protections in place to prove the material had not come from deforested areas.

"We can't say these materials absolutely, definitely came from illegal logging, but what we can say is that these are fibers that come from areas where forest clearance is happening illegally," she explained. "If you have not been doing the right sort of due diligence, then there is a big unaddressed risk there."

A spokesman for Clinton Cards defended the company's record. "As a business, we take our sourcing responsibilities extremely seriously," he said. "We require all of our suppliers to comply with applicable law, including the EU timber regulations. The supplier of the particular card at issue is FSC accredited. ... This report has raised concerns which we are addressing with our supplier. The cards have been withdrawn from sale. We will continue to strive to ensure the ethical sourcing of our timber products."

Card Factory had not responded to a request for comment at press time. However, the company told the Independent that the card in question had been produced by a third party supplier. "While the EU Timber Regulation doesn't currently apply to greetings cards, Card Factory operates as though it does," the company insisted. "The card in question was made by a third-party supplier. It was produced in 2012, before EU Timber Regulation came into force and before we introduced further controls over our sourcing from third-party suppliers."

The Greeting Card Association (GCA) also took issues with WWF's allegations. "We as an industry take our environmental credentials incredibly seriously and are committed to using sustainable paper sources," said a spokeswoman for the organization. "The GCA is pleased to report that through our members' efforts, our industry has moved to using paper and board from sustainable sources as a matter of course. Even the vast majority of overseas production is now chain of custody certified with almost 100 percent adoption in sight."

She added that WWF's laboratory reports show that while some trace of unknown source material was found in three items, "there is as yet no verified proof that this is from mixed tropical hardwood." She also noted that of these three products, one was made of FSC-approved board and boasted full chain of custody certification.

However, WWF maintained that the investigation highlighted the need for businesses to better audit their supply chains and take steps to ensure they are not indirectly contributing to deforestation in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. The NGO is campaigning in support of the recent U.N.-backed pledge to end deforestation by 2020 and it is working with a host of companies, including Carillion, Kingfisher, Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Travis Perkins, to develop a market based on 100 percent sustainable forest and wood products by 2020.

"These results suggest that the true cost of our Valentine's card could be far greater than the price on the wrapping," said Beatrix Richards, head of corporate stewardship timber and seafood at WWF, in a statement. "They may be contributing to the further loss of some of the most valuable forests in the world. Companies that rely on forests for their raw materials should scrutinize their supply chains, and reassure consumers that they are buying cards made from recycled or sustainable materials."

WWF also argued the investigation highlighted a loophole in EU rules designed to halt the import of illegally felled timber. In early 2013, the bloc adopted new rules that made it illegal for companies to import a wide range of timber products that had been sourced through illegal logging. However, WWF previously has argued 41 percent of wood-based products by value are exempt from the rules, meaning that products made from illegally logged timber still can be legally imported into the EU. Exemptions currently include greeting cards, musical instruments and books.

Why gold isn't green

However, it is not just the greeting cards industry that faces Valentine's Day supply chain challenges. Last week a group of NGOs launched a campaign against the world's largest jewelry retailer, Signet, calling on it to improve mining practices in its supply chain.

IndustriALL Global Union, London Mining Network, Earthworks, and LabourStart called on Signet, which owns leading high street brands such as H. Samuel and Ernest Jones, to work with its leading gold and diamond supplier Rio Tinto to enhance its supply chain's environmental and labor rights credentials.

The group said Signet's Responsible Sourcing Policy declares the company is "committed to the responsible sourcing of our products and the respect of human rights, and we expect the same from our suppliers around the world." But it argues Rio Tinto is a "notorious violator of labor rights, communities and the environment," citing a series (PDF) of reports (PDF) alleging that the company has failed to live up to all of its environmental and social supply chain commitments.

Earthworks' No Dirty Gold campaign director, Payal Sampat, urged Signet to step up efforts to improve the environmental and social governance of its supply chain. "Nobody wants their symbol of love made with gold or diamonds that harmed ecosystems or communities," he said in a statement. "Signet can't provide a meaningful guarantee that its jewelry isn't made with dirty gold or gems. It's high time that the world's largest jeweler cleaned up its supply chain."

His comments were echoed by Richard Solly, co-ordinator of London Mining Network, who accused Rio Tinto of having "a long history of violating indigenous peoples' land rights, dividing communities, polluting land and water and attacking unions." "There are continuing real concerns about the human and environmental impacts of its copper and gold mining operations at Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia, and at Grasberg in Papua, where its violations of indigenous peoples' rights and environmental destruction led the Norwegian government's state pensions fund to disinvest," he added.

Both Rio Tinto and Signet vigorously rejected the allegations. "We strongly refute these allegations," said a spokesman for Rio Tinto. "This campaign is attempting to misrepresent the way we work and call into question the value that Rio Tinto places on the health and safety of its employees. We are committed to applying the highest standards and values across our business."

He added that Rio Tinto is certified by the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC) Code of Practices, describing it as a "well-respected, independently audited, comprehensive international standard on responsible business practices for diamonds, gold and platinum group metals."

The company also highlighted how it has been "independently assured by both FTSE4Good and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index as being in the top 1 percent of their industry sector for sustainable development practices — measuring Health, Safety, Environment and Community practices."

However, Earthworks previously has alleged the RJC has struggled to deliver the levels of transparency and independence that would reassure campaign groups.

Signet similarly rejected the allegations and called on NGOs to support its efforts to further improve its supply chain practices. "Signet takes responsible sourcing very seriously and our policies reflect this," said a spokesman for the company. "The jewelry supply chain is complex, involving a diverse range of activities and geographies. It is acknowledged that there are many challenges and issues relating to the production of jewelry, just as there are in other industries. However, we believe that successful resolution of the challenges demands the constructive engagement of all stakeholders, in a spirit of collaboration. The involvement of government, industry and civil society is essential in order to achieve meaningful and sustainable outcomes."

However, while many firms are undoubtedly taking steps to improve the environmental sustainability of their supply chains, it is equally clear NGO investigations will continue to ask tough questions of retailers, particularly around festivals and holidays that lead to focused consumption on a particular product, be it diamonds or Easter eggs. For corporate CSR departments, Valentine's Day, Christmas and other holidays are marked as much by an increased risk of public criticism as the giving of gifts.

The only way businesses can minimize these reputational risks is to take clear and detailed steps to remove unsustainable materials from their supply chains. Who knows? Companies that commit themselves to beefing up their supply chain management this Valentine's Day may even earn themselves a green heart from an increasingly eagle-eyed NGO community.

This article originally appeared at BusinessGreen.