Please see also the follow-up to this article, Green Groups Turn the Heat Down on National Geographic But Up on KFC.
To understand why selecting environmentally preferable paper is so challenging for publishers and other print buyers, consider these three recent news items:
- National Geographic Society worked with Hearst Enterprises and Verso Paper to help mostly small land owners achieve Sustainable Forestry Initiative certification for well over 1 million acres of Maine forests.
- NGS conducted and published a thorough Life Cycle Assessment of National Geographic magazine’s carbon footprint, which Magazines Canada cited as an example for other publishers to follow.
- Green America’s Better Paper Project has targeted NGS with its “Practice What You Print” protests because National Geographic magazine does not use recycled paper.
Does the use of recycled content, as some claim, trump all other factors – such as forestry practices, carbon footprint, and pollution? After all, there’s no shortage of demand for recycled fiber. If you don’t use it, it’s not going to a landfill; someone else will use it.
Perhaps the real benefit of using recycled fiber is to bid up its value, thereby encouraging more recycling. Or maybe it’s to keep that fiber from being shipped to China.
Paper represents the majority of the carbon footprint and probably a majority of the environmental impact for almost every publisher. But there’s a lot more at stake than how many trees were cut down, or weren’t cut down, to make the paper.
Those trees may have come from a sustainably managed forest, where income from timber ensures that the owner doesn’t convert the forest to farmland. Or the trees could have been cut in the process of destroying a forest to convert it to a more profitable use.
Paper making is one of the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries. But the carbon footprint varies greatly from mill to mill depending upon whether they rely on coal-fired electricity and oil-fired boilers or are using sources like hydroelectric and biomass.
Paper mills can be nasty polluters, as the people who live near the Pearl River can attest. In fact, part of Green America’s criticism of National Geographic is that its paper comes from a Verso operation in Maine that is “one of the most polluting paper mills in the United States.” (It also notes that the magazine is "perhaps the inspiration for many in the conservation movement.")
But how do you compare one mill’s pollutants to another’s? I’ve never seen credible, apples-to-apples data for U.S. mills. How do you compare the toxicity of one pollutant to another? And are we talking about air pollution, water pollution, or whether the products contain nasty chemicals, like BPA (as most coated papers do)?
And which is more important, a product’s environmental profile or the environmental record of the company that makes it? In other words, is a paper with 100% recycled content really green if it’s made by a company that is raping the rain forest?
I wish I could give you simple answers – “This paper is green. That paper isn’t.” If you really care about your products’ impact on the environment, and aren’t just trying to appear green, the best thing I can tell you is to do your homework. Learn what "environmental-hero" companies are doing. Compare suppliers’ claims. Ask them why their products are greener than the competitions’. Press them to describe what they’re doing to improve and how you can contribute to those efforts.
Iconoclastic Earth Day articles have become a Dead Tree Edition tradition. Here are the offbeat Earth Day features from previous years: