Disney's radical new paper policy to have major impact

The Gunther Report

Disney's radical new paper policy to have major impact

Back in 2010, the activist group Rainforest Action Network sent a bunch of children’s books to a lab for analysis. The group learned that the paper in most books -- including those from The Walt Disney Co., which is the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and magazines, producing 50 million books and 30 million magazines a year -- contained tropical hardwood pulp, likely from Indonesia. Many kids books are made in China, and China gets much of its paper from Indonesia, where rainforests are threatened by logging, mining and agriculture.

Not long after, RAN launched a campaign against Disney, which included protests at the company’s corporate headquarters in Burbank. The campaign ended today with a big victory, in the form of a Disney paper buying policy that RAN’s executive director, Rebecca Tarbotton, describes as second to none.

“We’ve seen a tremendous commitment from Disney,” she told me, by phone, from RAN’s offices in San Francisco.

Here’s Disney’s announcement and here is a summary of the policy. It’s complicated, and far-reaching, and it will be rolled out in two phases -- with the first covering paper sourced directly by Disney or for use in Disney-branded products and packaging, and the second addressing paper sourced by  independent licensees.

Among the key principles: Disney is promising to reduce its overall paper use. It will increase its use of recycled paper and paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. It will avoid paper that comes from “High Conservation Value Forests” as well as “High Carbon Value Forests,” recognizing the importance of forests not only to protect biodiversity but to absorb CO2 from the air.

Importantly, the company specifically highlights Indonesia as a hotspot, and says Disney has “taken and will take action to eliminate paper fiber from unwanted sources in this region.”

Photo of Mickey in sorcerer's hat provided by Paul Smith/Feature Flash via Shutterstock

As a practical matter, this means Disney will no longer procure paper from Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), one of the world’s biggest paper companies, and one that has been harshly criticized not just by activists but by business-friendly environmental groups.  APP and Asian Pacific Resources International Holdings (April), another Indonesian firm, have been blamed for exploiting Indonesian forests, which are disappearing at an estimated rate of 2.5 million acres a year.

“Putting all those things together puts Disney at the head of the pack, when it comes to a consumer-products company,” Tarbottom said.

What’s more, the new standards cover the sprawling Disney global empire–not just books and magazines but the paper used by its media networks like ABC and ESPN, by its theme parks and resorts, by its movie studio and, importantly, by more than literally thousands of licensees who make Disney products.

“We’re talking about a policy that covers the packaging on a Mickey doll in Russia as well as a cocktail napkin on a cruise line or the maps that are given out at Disney World in Florida,” Tarbottom said.

The complexity of Disney’s businesses, with global suppliers and licensees, helps explain why it too more than two years for the policy to take shape. RAN tried to hurry things along by staging a well-publicized protest in May, 2011, hanging a banner across the Disney Studios in Burbank saying: “Disney: Destroying Indonesia’s Rainforests.” [See my 2011 blog post, Mickey Mouse, ravager of rainforests?] Since then, RAN and other environmental groups have been talking with Disney about how to improve its paper-buying practices.

In today’s announcement, Disney says it will continue to work with environmental groups to identify and prioritize regions with poor forest management and high rates of deforestation, and that it will report its progress on an annual basis. “They’ve got very good targets and timetables,” Tarbottom told me.

For Disney, the policy removes a stain on a company with a good reputation for environmental stewardship. The company’s DisneyNature movie unit has released feature-length documentaries in recent years including Earth, Oceans and African Cats. The company’s Worldwide Conservation Fund supports programs in 112 countries. And, as its press release noted, Disney has invested more than $27 million in forest carbon projects in the United States, Peru, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, and China since 2009.