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Archive for October, 2012

I believe that paper use will eventually achieve an elite sustainability status in environmental practices.  Does that sound like a bold statement?  Renewable, recyclable, and often reusable, paper presents a case study for forest preservation, economic benefit and life cycle analysis.  Did I mention biodegradable?

There is a runaway perception that paper is the ultimate tree killer, and that we need to stop printing on paper altogether.  Our friends at Toshiba put an exclamation point on that notion.  How did we in the paper products industry become the low-hanging fruit for the  save-a-tree crowd?  Simply, because it is just too easy.  It resonates with a public more interested in sound bites than truth.

We know there will be an endless parade of paper detractors unless we turn the tide.  That tide is educating the new generations of paper users and their parents.  How did we let ignorance get this far?  In June of 2008 the U.S. Postal Service released a study:  Life Cycle Inventory Analysis of the U.S. Mail.  The study showed that mail, including paper production, printing, distribution, and delivery uses only .6% of the total national energy consumption.  When compared to household energy use, the entire life cycle of mail uses the equivalent amount of energy as a small appliance, like a coffee maker.  At the time of this study, the Postal Service was already making a case for mail and its future sustainability.

What matters now is building some momentum for trees as a sustainable resource because of paper.  Trees are reducing CO2, releasing oxygen, harboring moisture, creating habitats for an endless list of living organisms, and on and on.  When it is recycled (and prevented from breaking down in landfills), paper has a much lower carbon footprint than many products because it is manufactured using a high percentage of renewable biomass energy.

What makes a tree sustainable because of paper?  It is the economics.  Paper is one very important product made from wood.  Its future depends on the sustainability of the forest.  What is not understood by most is:  paper use supports sustainable forest management in the U.S.  If there is an economic reason to support the forest as a forest (as opposed to a development, golf course, or shopping mall), then that is worth talking about.  Paper makers not only create an economic need for forests, but actively maintain and nurture them to affect their viability for generations.

And paper?  We have never managed its life cycle better than we do today.  You could say it actually does have up to 5 lives in many cases.  Can’t say that about the monitor you are staring at right now, can you?  We have not done a very good job of educating the public, and if we never do it, the time will come when paper will be squelched by public environmental interests.  In that case, ignorance will not be bliss.  True or not, perception is reality.  Until we start making our electronic gadgets more renewable and recyclable (like paper), we will continue  creating mountains of e-waste and quickly depleting what is left of our non-renewable resources.

Steve Brocker is a guest blogger for Two Sides.  He is VP Sales and Marketing for Western States Envelope & Label.  Steve is chairman of the Postal/Government Affairs Committee of the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA.)  He is also a member of the EMA Foundation’s Institute for Environmental Studies Committee.

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It would be easier to focus just on one attribute when making a choice about which product to buy. You could just look at price, but then you may not find the quality or features that you want.

Similarly if you want to consider the environmental and social impacts of a purchase, you could focus on one attribute. You could just look at how your TV was made, but then you would not evaluate the raw material inputs, the emissions from use and the disposal issues.

One of the key advantages of using life-cycle thinking is to avoid hidden tradeoffs and unintended consequences (Terrachoice, 2010).  For example, if you look only at the recycled content of paper, you could buy a product made at an older mill facility with higher water and air emissions, or a higher volume of solid waste to landfill than a modern state-of-the-art mill using wood fiber.  In other words, beware of marketing claims that focus on single attributes of the life cycle because they do not tell the whole story about the environmental footprint of paper products.

The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) is facing this same challenge. TSC has been tasked by Walmart and the other consortium members with developing a system to evaluate the sustainability of consumer goods and their supply chains. It would be easier to pick an approach that considers only a few criteria; however this would not meet their mandate of a science-based system that improves environmental and social sustainability for all product categories. They have chosen to take a life-cycle approach in all of their work. It is harder and more complicated but will result in more progress towards measurable sustainability improvements without creating unintended consequences.

TSC’s Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System (SMRS) is being created in two levels through a close collaboration between all members, including retailers, their supply chain, universities and NGOs. Level 1 leverages existing life-cycle research to profile the sustainability of product categories and develop key performance indicators (KPI). The KPI are used to drive questionnaires that retailers discuss with their suppliers. Walmart is currently piloting these questionnaires, which they call “product category scorecards” with several product categories. They plan to roll out hundreds of scorecards by the end of 2013. The product category scorecards will have a real impact on the sustainability profile of the consumer goods. Walmart is using the scorecards to set and track improvement targets with suppliers, and to select/de-select products and suppliers. Similarly, TSC’s other retailer members plan to implement their own tools based on the work of TSC. The second level of SMRS is a new IT platform based on new life-cycle models which will allow quantitative tracking of detailed sustainability data on product categories, as well as specific products.

To date, TSC’s life-cycle based work on paper has found that many attributes, namely fibre source, manufacturing (energy, GHG, water consumption, emissions to air and water) and end-of-life treatment are all important factors to examine in the sustainability profile of paper. Focusing on a single attribute may be easier, but focusing on all the important attributes will get us closer to sustainability and achieving a lower overall environmental footprint of the products we use.

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Christine Burow is a guest blogger for Two Sides U.S. She runs an independent consulting company focused on business-to-business strategy with an emphasis on marketing and sustainability. Christine is also Co-Chair of The Sustainability Consortium’s Paper Sector.

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