Saving trees the smart way
Timber firms, customers and environmental groups are working together to get companies to use more "green" paper, but some forests remain endangered.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE Magazine) - In this season of annual reports, Corporate America is putting on a green face.
Home Depot (Research), Johnson & Johnson (Research), JP Morgan Chase (Research), McDonald's (Research), Lowe's (Research) and Wal-Mart (Research) will print their reports on paper that meets the exacting standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, an alliance of nonprofits and paper companies aimed at promoting sustainable forestry.
Meanwhile, 11 big companies that buy tons and tons of paper, including Bank of America (Research), Hewlett Packard (Research), Staples (Research), Toyota (Research) and the Time Inc. division of Time Warner (Research) (publisher of CNNMoney.com and FORTUNE) have formed the Paper Working Group, a coalition aimed at using their purchasing power to make "environmentally preferable paper" more available and affordable.
This is good public relations for now and good business in the long run, since no big company wants to see deforestation, destruction of wildlife habitats and unpredictable climate change. (Forests help slow down global warming.) The question is, are these corporate initiatives making a significant difference?
A complex business
It's a hard question to answer, in part because the forestry business is global, complex and under financial stress. There's no doubt that sustainable forestry is a big trend -- the acreage certified by the FSC, whose supporters range from activist groups like Greenpeace to big Canadian timber firms like Domtar and Mohawk Paper, has more than doubled in the past 3 years. About 68 million hectares have been certified by FSC.
A competing standard called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, backed by big U.S. firms like Weyerhauser and International Paper, has certified even more land. Somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of the world's harvestable forests are certified as sustainably managed. The standards are only about 10 years old, so that's progress.
The trouble is, about 60 percent of America's commercial forests are owned by private landowners, about 10 million of them. For various reasons, they have a harder time getting their land certified. Forest land in North American is also being sold for real estate development. And timber production is shifting to South America and Asia, where trees grow faster but environmental protections are weaker.
"Forestry practices are improving, but the threats continue to grow as well," says Justin Ward, director of the agriculture, forestry and fisheries programs at Conservation International, a Washington-based environmental group that works closely with business. "The greatest threats are in the world's tropical forests."
More than half of the tropical forests have been deforested, he says, and another 1 percent is lost each year. Some wood is used locally for fuel or housing, so don't blame big business for that.
Catalogs: Where trees go to die
But pulp produced in the global south also finds its way back to the United States and Europe where, despite e-mail, paper consumption continues to grow. (The U.S. ranks No. 2 in the world, behind Belgium.) One reason why: Roughly 18 billion catalogs were mailed last year, which comes to 64 for each person in America, according to Time magazine.
A single retailer, Victoria's Secret, mails about 390 million catalogs a year -- more than 1 million a day. Some of its paper comes from old-growth forests.
"It just doesn't get any worse than that," says Todd Paglia of Forest Ethics, an advocacy group that is running a campaign called Victoria's Dirty Secret at www.victoriasdirtysecret.net.
Limited Brands, which owns Victoria's Secret, as well as Express, The Limited, and Bath & Body Works, says it is trying to improve its environmental stewardship. The company prints some catalogs on recycled stock, along with its annual report.
Debate over forestry practices has long divided environmentalists and loggers. What's new are the initiatives that bring together timber firms, customers and environmental groups.
Rainforest Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit, works with forestry companies and their customers to promote the use of FSC-certified paper and wood. Liza Murphy of the alliance says: "This is not about 'put a fence around the forest so nobody can use it.' It's about ways everybody can win."
David Ford., the CEO of Metafore, a nonprofit which organized the Paper Working Group, is pushing for more transparency, so that big buyers can know the full impact of their paper purchases, including how much energy and water is consumed to produce and ship it. His partner companies are looking at everything from the kinds of business cards they use to the packaging required to ship automobile parts.
"There really is power in specifying how you are going to spend your money," he says.
Complicated as the issue may be, companies and consumers can take simple steps to make a difference.
Companies can buy certified paper, and not just for their annual reports. Environmentalists favor the FSC standard, which is tougher than the industry-backed SFI standard, although the differences are narrowing.
Individuals also can buy certified or recycled paper. Staples and Office Depot promote 30 percent recycled paper, which costs about 20 cents a ream more than regular paper.
You can slow down the flood of junk mail by visiting the "do not mail" registry and you can call retailers to ask them to stop mailing you catalogs you no longer want.
Your mailman will thank you. And you might even save a tree.
Plugged In is a daily column by writers of FORTUNE magazine. Today's columnist, Marc Gunther, can be reached at email@example.com.