How Domtar Learned a Lesson from Middle Schoolers

How Domtar Learned a Lesson from Middle Schoolers

A group of students at Mt. Scott Learning Center in Portland, Ore., wrote last year to our President and CEO, John Williams, after getting the wrong impression of a campaign still under development. The letters stemmed from a news report they had read, and one student warned that "People will probably campaign against you because they don't want to kill trees by wasting so much paper ... We use this saying at school, 'Don't be a Domtar.'"

Don't be a Domtar? We have been lauded for years for our environmental leadership. Now this news report had suddenly made us a laughing-stock, and more than 35 angry middle school students were writing the head of our company to protest?

These letters struck a chord with John, and he knew he had left the wrong impression. He shared them with me, and after reading each one several times, I didn't know what to think. Part of me was angry -- clearly, I thought, they don't know we've been recognized by organizations such as Rainforest Alliance as an industry leader in pushing for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification to ensure paper products come from forests that are well managed and renewable. And for months, we've been working with Green My Parents, a nationwide program to help young people teach their peers and parents save the planet through simple, everyday actions.

Part of me was also befuddled. If they have such a problem with paper, why print and mail hard copies of the letters?

I wanted to hear directly from the kids and show them the truth. I wanted to show them we're responsive, that we have a history of sustainability, longstanding ENGO partnerships, that our campaign, "PAPER because," is really about promoting the responsible use of paper and showcasing how it is an effective means of communication. And I wanted them to understand more about what can be done to help save money and the planet.

speakersI knew I'd be near the school in March, so I contacted the students' technology and social studies teacher, Aaron Mitchell, and organized a visit.

The Most Important Kind of Paper for Teens

When I went to the school, I brought Tom Feegel and Rudy Sanchez from Green My Parents. Tom recently released the Green My Parents book, and Rudy is their top spokesperson and the chief sustainability officer of his house. He's graduating this spring from Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, California, and will attend Bucknell University. Tom and Rudy trekked up from L.A., and described how Green My Parents can help the students save money and the planet, and have fun while doing both.

I asked the students to name all the great things paper is used for, and they thought of diplomas, toilet paper, copy paper, books, magazines, notebooks, napkins, the Constitution, tickets, certificates and more. But they missed the kicker, a teen-age staple: candy wrappers. I gave the kids a sneak peak of the sweet treats I brought for them, but only after Rudy spoke about Green My Parents, and after we did a lesson from the GMP book.

Rudy stole the show. His delivery is flawless and his connection with the students is evident immediately. I was a stiff, nervous, paper nerd. Rudy is smart, and he is cool. He also showed them how to save $125 at their homes by slaying "energy vampires," turning off lights, and making smart choices at the grocery store. I talked biodiversity and forest certification -- Rudy talked about being green, saving green, and leading their households to a more sustainable future. It was no contest.

In advance of my trip there, I had 40 cartons of Domtar's EarthChoice Office Paper sent to the school. Every school can use paper. The kids were actually excited -- they arranged the paper in a pyramid against the wall -- and all of them were very gracious and thanked me and Domtar for it. One even said "Tell your boss we said, 'Thank you for the paper.'"

In all, it was a very successful trip. I had a great time meeting the students. I admire their passion, their willingness to question the unknown and how they're skeptical of spin. The staff at the school is phenomenal. They really encourage the students to take initiative, be curious and speak out. (You can read the account of our visit by Tom DeJardin, Mt. Scott's executive director, here.) Green My Parents is a wonderful organization, and I'm glad Domtar has partnered with them to reach today's youth. Rudy will go far, and I'll enjoy watching him find success in whatever path he chooses.

I really believe in Domtar and what we do. Paper reminds me of so many good things. I love the frequent deliveries I get from my five year old daughter of her latest drawings on our gently used copy paper, loaded with peace signs, stickers, and people with wheels for feet. She sees paper as a way to explore, create, have fun. That's what paper -- even copy paper -- can do.

We need to look at life more through the lens of a five-year-old. And while we're at it, slay a few energy vampires.